President Obama appears poised to nominate two senators for his top two national security cabinet posts.
Sen. John Kerry at State is a safe choice, a respite after the controversy swirling around the president's initial pick. He is one of the more experienced Democrats vying for the job and he has already worked well with the Obama administration on earlier diplomatic crises. Kerry will sail through the nomination process and may even generate enthusiasm from the Senate -- at least when compared with the controversy surrounding Obama's initial front-runner, Susan Rice.
Sen. Chuck Hagel for Defense is a more difficult pick to judge. He is likely to be easy to confirm -- easier than Rice, anyway -- and some in the media will applaud. But whether he is the best choice for the times, and whether he can deliver on his putative selling point -- working with Congress -- is open to question.
Hagel is one of a handful of Republicans whose prominence in public life owes primarily to their willingness to criticize other Republicans. Given the adulation such figures enjoy from the mainstream media and academics, it is perhaps surprising that more politicians don't follow suit. Of course, every Republican will criticize some aspect or other of current Republican policies or practice, but there is a special category of politician for whom that is the primary stock in trade. You can spot such a politician; he is the one, when asked what he likes about Republicans, who responds with a reference to Eisenhower and quickly follows up with a tirade about current and recent leaders of the party.
Hagel is one of these sorts, especially on national security policy. He is a reliable quote criticizing the Bush administration or Sen. John McCain, or Republican hawks, or what-have-you on a wide range of issues. The problem with this is not that he is wrong or unique. On the contrary, he is rather conventional. He voted for the Iraq war in 2002, but then had doubts about the war. These doubts led him to strongly oppose the surge in 2007, along with most of the national security establishment. By itself, opposing the surge does not disqualify someone for higher national security office, but calling the surge "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam" does rather cast doubt on any claims to deep national security insight.
Perhaps more problematically, he has regularly voted against sanctions on Iran, apparently failing to understand how sanctions are a necessary component of any diplomatic negotiation. His opposition to coercive diplomacy with Iran may even put him to the dovish side of the Obama administration. And, as Bill Kristol points out, Hagel is hardly going to reassure Israel supporters that the Obama administration "has Israel's back," as the president likes to say.
Here's the thing: these views are utterly conventional in certain Democratic circles (academic circles, too). Some of Hagel's neo-isolationism even has distant echoes in the Ron Paul wing of the Republican Party. These views are not "beyond the pale" of reasonable defense discourse and they are fine on the academic talk circuit.
Where Hagel's views don't have much purchase is with Republicans in Congress. Yes, they might vote to confirm him on the grounds of senatorial courtesy, but they are not going to consider him a compelling voice on national security policy.
According to the Washington Post, the appeal of Hagel appears to be his putative ability to make Pentagon budget cuts palatable to a skeptical Congress. Obama's last cross-party secretary of defense, Robert Gates, did have a lot of influence among Republicans. Hagel is no Bob Gates. The only people whom Hagel will persuade are the already converted. (As a thought experiment, Democrats should ask themselves how many Democrats would have been reassured if a President Romney put Joe Lieberman at Defense?)
What does the case for Hagel reduce to? He is a Vietnam vet who has long supported Obama and opposed Republicans on national security. There are quite a few Democrats who fit that bill -- Jack Reed comes to mind. Hagel will likely be as effective a secretary of defense as Reed would be. That may be good enough for Obama. And since elections have consequences, I doubt that Hagel would be denied confirmation if appointed.
But let's not pretend that this is some grand bipartisan gesture that will help Obama's Defense Department work more productively with Congress.
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The Senate's war hawks, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, are giving voice to their concerns that the Obama administration is about to repeat in Afghanistan the policy choices that squandered the national security gains and political influence bought with blood in Iraq. All three are making direct parallels between the endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senator Graham cautioned "Iraq is falling apart. Political progress has stopped, al Qaeda is beginning to remerge. What you see in Iraq is going to happen in Afghanistan if we do not have a post-2014 presence."
Ostensible secretary of defense candidate Senator Jack Reed told reporters yesterday that such criticism was "comparing apples and oranges." His rationale? "Reed noted that botched withdrawal from Iraq was set in motion by the Bush administration, and said President Obama is intent on not making the same mistakes in Afghanistan." There is evidently no statute of limitations beyond which this Administration will take responsibility for its own choices -- even when the president actually campaigned on the policy choices Senator Reed is saying are the fault of their predecessor.
All of the significant choices about the end of the war in Iraq were made by the Obama administration:
The result? An authoritarian Iraqi government turning the military we built against its domestic rivals, aligning itself with Iran and excusing the depredations of the Assad government against its own people.
And the Obama administration appears poised to make the exact same set of choices in Afghanistan. The President conveyed early that he cared about the timeline, not the objectives of the war, leading all affected parties to hedge against us. President Obama chose not to draw attention to the malfeasance of the 2009 election that returned Hamid Karzai to power, instead over-investing in the incumbent. President Obama cared less about risk -- either to our forces or to achievement of the objectives for which they were fighting -- than about diversion from "nation building here at home," evidenced by his limits on resources requested by commanders. His diplomats never were able to deliver on either of our strategy's seminal political objectives: Pakistani cooperation and Afghan governance. His administration promised a "civilian surge" that never materialized. His administration sprayed money ineffectually through aid programs uncoordinated with our strategy's objectives and inadequately supervised to prevent colossal corruption (the Special Inspector General's report should infuriate every American taxpayer). His exit strategy was contingent on Afghan security forces being able to undertake the fight, yet the fact that only one of 23 Afghan brigades are capable of independent operations has not affected either the timeline of our withdrawal or the size of the force that would remain in the country. And now the Obama administration is negotiating a long-term stationing agreement that would consolidate around 6,000 U.S. forces at a single base outside Kabul to conduct raids throughout the country and train small numbers of Afghan security forces. But the Karzai government seems unlikely to allow U.S. forces to retain immunity, likely considering himself better off if he appears to force our retrenchment than simply be the victim of it.
Why would President Obama repeat the mistakes of Iraq in Afghanistan? The saddest and likely truest answer is that he doesn't consider them mistakes. Small wonder parties to the conflict have been positioning themselves against U.S. abandonment of our allies and our objectives in Afghanistan.
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The National Intelligence Council's (NIC) just-released Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds report identifies key meta-trends that will shape the future international system, including the explosion of the global middle class, the diffusion of power away from the West, and the rising likelihood of inter-state conflict. In no other region will these trends play a more decisive role than in Asia, where the NIC predicts China to emerge as the world's largest economy, India to become the biggest driver of middle-class growth on Earth, and conflict scenarios between a number of rising and established powers likely to put regional peace at risk. In no other region will the future of U.S. leadership in the international system be more decisively tested than in an Asia featuring rising giants like India and Indonesia, a fully emerged peer competitor in China, and the dramatic tilt in the international economy's center of gravity from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific.
What kind of role Asia will play in the world, and how it will relate to the United States and other Western powers, in turn will be determined by what form of regional order is operative in 2030. My last post described four broad pathways Asia could take over the next two decades. This one sketches out a more granular set of scenarios for Asia's future, identifying seven distinct possibilities that could emerge by 2030. That there are these many pathways demonstrates how unsettled regional power dynamics are -- and how much uncertainty remains around China's trajectory, U.S. staying power, Japan's strategic re-emergence, and the nature of Asian regionalism.
Headline scenarios for Asia in 2030 include:
More specifically, three forms of multipolarity in Asia seem possible: (1) a cooperative-competitive multipolar order in which the United States is the strongest power; (2) a fundamentally competitive multipolar order in which China is the strongest power; or (3) a liberal Concert of Asia in which multiple strong states organize themselves around cooperation rather than competition.
Alternatively, three forms of bipolarity seem possible: (1) an Asia split into two competitive blocs led by the United States and China; (2) a region featuring a withdrawn United States pitting a grouping led by China against a contending one led by Asia's other great and regional powers; and (3) a Sino-American condominium in which a cooperative bipolarity orders the region.
Finally, one form of unipolarity is possible (and only one): a form of Chinese primacy that reduces other states to lesser status and effectively excludes the United States from playing a leading regional role.
From the vantage point of 2012, the most likely Asian strategic futures for 2030 appear to be, in descending order: (1) multipolarity with a U.S. lead, (2) U.S.-China Cold War, (3) multipolarity with a Chinese lead, (4) Asia-China Cold War, (5) concert of Asia, (6) Sino-American condominium, and (7) new Middle Kingdom.
The key variable will be what role the United States chooses to play in Asia with respect to continued military presence and diplomatic/economic leadership (which themselves will derive in part from the ability of the United States to revitalize its domestic power resources); defense of its allies and deepening of strategic partnership with India; and the nature of its relationship with China. Other decisive variables will be the scope and pace of internal political change within China; the speed of India's economic and military rise; and the future of Japan and the U.S.-Japan alliance.
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If you were Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, how worried would you be about President Obama's threats regarding a U.S. response to any use of Syrian's chemical weapons? A series of recent news pieces (here, here, and here) seem to suggest a depressing answer: not very much.
Ever since the civil war started, the nightmare scenario has been the prospect that the conflict would escalate to a point where Syria's vast chemical arsenal was in play -- either through a deliberate use or through a loss of custody. That nightmare seems ever more plausible as the civil war grinds on, particularly as the tide seems to be favoring the rebels. It is not impossible to imagine a rapid collapse of the Assad regime and, for that very reason, it is not impossible to imagine circumstances under which Assad would be tempted to gamble with a game-changer like chemical weapons.
President Obama has consistently warned that the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer for American involvement, as well. The Administration has hitherto resisted calls to intervene more directly in the conflict, but it has also indicated that the United States would act militarily if chemical weapons were used.
How might Assad interpret that vague threat?
One can divide up the continuum of military response into five main categories, listed below in order of escalating involvement:
1. Symbolic punitive strike: a military response designed to indicate sharp disapproval, but otherwise not tilting the balance in the civil-war and not securing the WMD.
2. Game-changing military operation that topples Assad regime: some combination of sustained strikes and other action (e.g., no fly zones) that tilts the military balance decisively in the rebels favor, hastening the fall of the Assad regime.
3. Destroying the chemical arsenal: conducting enough airstrikes to render the arsenal unusable by Assad or by terrorists and militia groups.
4. Invading to secure the WMD arsenal: deploying enough ground troops to secure the many chemical depots and to hunt down any weapons that may have slipped away.
5. Invading to guarantee a favorable political transition: deploying enough ground troops to guarantee the toppling of the Assad regime and assure a transition to a new political order more favorable to U.S. interests.
None of these is an attractive option.
Option 1 is trivially easy to do but will not accomplish much beyond its symbolism -- even its symbolic message may be undone, since a response like this signals weakness as loudly as it signals disapproval.
Option 2 is a bit more challenging -- but compared to the other options quite doable. However, it will not address our biggest concern about the chemical weapons. It will implicate the United States in the civil war without giving us much leverage over the political outcome or the disposition of the chemical weapons.
Option 3 may not be doable and would involve tremendous collateral damage. The arsenal is vast, and widely dispersed, and destroying all of it from air would require a very lengthy sustained bombardment. In the process, the air strikes would result in extensive contamination and casualties in communities near the depots. Even then we could not be certain that all of the weapons were destroyed before terrorists got their hands on some.
Option 4 would be a daunting military operation, and depending on the state of Syrian forces could approximate another Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF, the invasion of Iraq in 2003). Once in Syria, the pressure for mission-creep to expand to policing a political resolution to the civil war would be nearly irresistible. Also, this would take a long time to assemble (think how long it took to build up to OIF) and some chemical weapons could go missing in the delay.
Option 5 would be tantamount to another OIF -- all of the downsides of Option 4 plus an indefinite commitment to a hostile occupation.
The Obama Administration has assiduously avoided spelling out with any clarity what the President might be contemplating, but some things are clear. Obama has built his entire regional strategy around the "no more Iraqs" objective. There is a double meaning: "no more Iraq" in the sense of leaving Iraq regardless of consequences and taking a hands-off approach to the unraveling situation there, and "no more Iraqs" in the sense of not making any military commitments that involve substantial U.S. ground troops.
Perhaps the prospect of Syrian chemical weapons landing in the hands of terrorist groups would cause the President to change his regional strategy, but a change of that magnitude would require substantial political preparation of the American public. The uncertain and vague comments so far from the Administration are far from adequate to the task. My inference, and likely the inference of Assad, too, is that Options 4 and 5 are effectively off the table.
I can well imagine that the Administration would be tempted to try Option 3, but it is far from clear that it is militarily feasible. And is there anything in the past four years that would suggest this Administration is willing to risk the substantial collateral damage that would ensue?
Option 2 is more likely and, given the fecklessness that would be signaled in Option 1, might be where the Administration ends up. But the Administration has been very wary about getting on other slippery slopes and, despite its boasts about leading from behind in Libya, the Administration understands that doing "another Libya" is a dangerous business. Indeed, the Administration has resisted pressure to do just that up until now when there was more upside potential and so why would they change their mind now when the upside looks far more bleak. It is not at all clear that the use of chemical weapons on Syrian rebel groups would be enough to change Obama's calculus.
If Assad reasons the same way I have just done, he may conclude that what Obama means by military warnings about chemical red lines is simply Option 1: punitive strikes that don't otherwise change the game. In other words, Assad may conclude that Obama's threats are the least of his worries, given how desperate his situation is.
Ironically, then, if the Obama administration really does want to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, it may have to threaten more credibly than it has so far a level of military intervention the President manifestly wants to avoid.
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Will Inboden has kicked off an excellent discussion with his post on how to succeed in a foreign-policy career. I've been asked this question more than once, so I have a scripted answer ready to share. Herewith is my Advice to Aspiring Foreign Policy Wonks:
1. Join the military. The proportion of the U.S. population who are veterans of the armed forces is something near an all-time low in the post-World War II era. If you want to stand out and be truly distinctive, serve your country in uniform for a couple years. You don't have to make it a career; just a two- or four-year stint will broaden your horizons, let you see a bit of the world, sharpen your mission focus and personal discipline, teach you a few of the military's innumerable acronyms, make you more credible when you work alongside active-duty personnel in the future, and get you some fresh air and exercise. If you are young, healthy, and single, I daresay the burden should be on you to explain why you haven't joined up yet.
2. Get a Masters degree. In the 1940s, something like 5 percent of Americans had a four-year Bachelor's Degree. Today, that number is close to 40 percent-but only 5 percent of Americans have a Masters Degree. In other words, the Masters is today what the Bachelor's was two generations ago. I view a Masters as a basic requirement for advancement in a knowledge-oriented career: you absolutely must have one. That said, there really isn't a specific field you have to study. I think Will is right: study what you love. But mostly...
3. Study history and philosophy. Henry Kissinger wrote somewhere that real statesmen don't study politics. They study history and philosophy. They steep themselves in the knowledge of the world and in the realm of ideas. I'd add that philosophy (and theology) is the best intellectual training ground I know. If you can master -- or even competently grapple with -- the toughest ideas and concepts in the entire range of human knowledge, then contemplating grand strategy begins to look easier.
4. Learn a language. Along with studying history and studying specific regions and areas, learn a language. That makes you a serious expert that will distinguish you from those (ahem, like me) "experts" who are really just dilettantes. Speaking a language opens up a whole new world for you, lets you learn a culture with a depth simply unavailable to others, and gives you credibility with foreign interlocutors.
5. Travel and work abroad.
6. Don't get a PhD. A PhD is a professional credential for aspiring professors, in the same way an MD and a JD are credentials for doctors and lawyers. Do you want to be a professor? Get a PhD. Do you want to be the Secretary of State? Don't get a PhD.
7. Care passionately about your work. I once heard an acquaintance half-jokingly celebrate the rise of counter-terrorism careers. He didn't think the massive surge in attention to counter-terrorism was justified, but "I'm going to ride this gravy train all the way until retirement," he said. I couldn't imagine a faster way to lose respect for myself. Believe in the importance of what you're doing, or you'll find yourself burnt out, disillusioned, bored, and bitter. If you find yourself losing interest in what you're doing (not just for a few months, but for a few years), don't do it.
8. Have integrity. Will yammered on about having a pleasant "personality" and being "nice" to "people." I suppose that's a good idea, although I'm not exactly the expert on it. Let me add that, in dealing with people, be truthful, loyal, and decent. There is a myth that to get ahead in DC you have to be manipulative and self-promoting; that once you've laid down your opinion you have to ensure you get your way lest you lose credibility; that brusqueness, a sharp tone, or a short-temper in the service of a bureaucratic fight are acceptable. I disagree. Human decency is more effective, especially when disagreeing with someone.
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President Obama seems to
have two options in assigning the top three national security spots (Secretary
of State, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Advisor): follow the
conventional beltway wisdom or go his own way and do what he thinks is best.
The conventional wisdom is that Obama should pick a Democratic "dream team." That would put Senator Kerry in the Secretary of State slot. He is the Democratic Party's acknowledged congressional leader on foreign policy and would be a shoo-in to be confirmed. He has certainly earned the president's favor, having rescued the administration from some tricky foreign policy predicaments, and he clearly wants the job. The Obama political operation appears willing to risk the Democratic Senate seat in the by-election to replace him. He will not have the celebrity star power that Hilary Clinton had, but there is no one (except her husband -- or perhaps Colin Powell) who could come close to matching that anyway, and Kerry probably is the biggest name available. Secretary Clinton's most important contribution to foreign policy in the past four years has been this high profile "face of America" role -- certainly she had a bigger impact in that role than in shaping key policy debates inside the interagency -- and so seasoned foreign policy hands recognize the importance of making a high-stature appointment.
For Defense, the conventional wisdom is that either of the top two underlings from the first term -- current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter or former UnderSecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy -- would be strong picks. Neither would face a contentious confirmation fight or a steep learning curve. Both enjoy bipartisan respect and would be as capable in selling Obama's controversial defense cuts as anyone he could pick. Both would be trusted to do the best that could be done to mitigate the damage those cuts risk doing to national security.
That leaves Susan Rice looking for a spot to land, and the conventional wisdom is that she would make a fine National Security Advisor. She clearly has the trust of the president, which is the single most important criterion for success, and she would be seen as an equal by the other principals (another important criterion). This is also a non-confirmable post, so the Benghazi unpleasantness would pose no hurdle. There is the awkwardness that the job is currently filled by someone who wants to stay, Tom Donilon, but the conventional wisdom is that it would be no bad thing for President Obama to start the second term with a clean slate. Indeed, as one Obama insider put it, an "intervention" may be needed to repair the dysfunctions of the first term. The president could also consider many other worthy names for spots on the "dream team " that were also in circulation four years ago -- Richard Danzig, John Hamre, Jim Steinberg, to name just a few -- but they all have in common this "clean slate" feel.
The trial balloons floating out of the White House suggest that President Obama doesn't agree with the conventional wisdom. It appears he wants to put Susan Rice at State -- never mind that some Senators seem willing to serve the sauce for Rice's goose that she merrily served to their gander over the years. Even some Democratic voices have raised doubts (here and here) about whether Rice is a good fit at State.
And if Rice is at State, what to do with the loyal Kerry? The consolation prize appears to be Defense -- never mind the doubts that a Senate office is the wrong training ground for managing such an unwieldy bureaucracy. Or perhaps Kerry would be left at the altar altogether, which would mean that Obama's rocky relations with Congress would have one more unhappy boulder to contend with.
And if Rice is at State, that means Donilon is likely to stay as National Security Advisor, which leaves the slate uncleaned.
When facing similar choices in the past, Obama has tended to follow his own lead and ignore the conventional wisdom and so I guess the best bet is that he will do so again. But sometimes the conventional wisdom has a certain, well, wisdom to it.
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While we have no doubt that Bob Schieffer, the moderator of Monday night's foreign policy debate, will have plenty of material to choose from in formulating his questions for the candidates, we couldn't resist a chance to add our own suggestions. Following are some potential questions for the debate as submitted by the Shadow Government crew:
1. Mr. President, is there any foreign policy challenge America faces that you would concede has gotten worse on your watch because of actions you have taken or not taken? In other words, is there any foreign policy problem that you would say can be blamed at least partly on you and not entirely on Republicans or President Bush?
2. Mr. President, what is the fairest criticism of your foreign policy record that you have heard from Governor Romney over the course of this campaign?
3. Mr. President, what is the most unfair criticism of Romney's foreign policy platform that you have heard your supporters levy over the course of this campaign?
4. Mr. President, why do you say that Romney is proposing defense expenditures that the military have not asked for when Romney is just proposing restoring funding to the levels you claimed were needed in your own budget a few years ago. That budget, which you asked for, reflected what the military asked for didn't it? And didn't you order the military to accept deeper cuts -- thus they can't now speak up and ask for those levels to be restored without being insubordinate, so isn't it misleading to claim that they are not asking for them when you ordered them not to?
5. For both: Both campaigns have featured senior retired military endorsements as a way of demonstrating your fitness to be commander-in-chief. Don't you worry that such endorsements drag the military into partisan politics, thus undermining public confidence in a non-partisan military institution?
1. Mr. President, history tells us that prestige matters; that is, nation-states who are regarded for their power, whether military, economic or moral, are less often challenged by those who wish to upset the peace or change the international order that favors the interests of the great powers. Has your administration seen an increase in the prestige of the United States or a decrease, and why?
2. For both: Isn't a reform of our foreign aid system and institutions long overdue, and shouldn't reform have as its primary goal the promotion of direct and tangible US interests, such as more trade with more countries that govern themselves democratically? If this is truly the appropriate goal for international development funds, then why aren't all aid recipients required to practice sustained and real democracy?
1. For both: Do you believe that the economically endangered nations of Europe should adopt policies of austerity, as countries like Germany have argued, or that they should turn instead to more fiscal stimulus? If you prefer stimulus, is there any level of debt/GDP at which you get concerned about their ability to pay those debts? If you believe these countries should borrow more, from whom should they borrow? Should the United States be offering funds?
2. For both: There has been almost no progress on global trade talks since the summer of
2008. How would you assess the health of the World Trade Organization and the
world trading system? Is this important for the United States? What would you
do to strengthen the WTO, if anything?
3. For both: In 2009, in response to the stimulus bill, a top Chinese economic official said, ""We hate you guys. Once you start issuing $1 trillion-$2 trillion... we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do...." Brazil's finance minister, Guido Mantega, has accused the United States Federal Reserve of igniting a global currency war with its policies of quantitative easing. To what extent does the United States need to consider the international ramifications of its economic policies? Do you believe a strong dollar is in the U.S. interest? If so, what does that mean?
1. For both: What do you consider the top two national security threats to our country?
2. For both: How do you see increasing energy independence for the United States affecting our foreign policy?
3. President Obama, you have threatened to veto any changes to the 2010 Budget Control Act, yet both your Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe sequestration going into effect would be disastrous. How will you enact the Budget Control Act without damaging our national defense?
4. Governor Romney, you have committed to increase defense spending; where does the money come from to do that in year 1 of a Romney administration?
5. President Obama, Vice President Biden has said that your administration will withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanstan in 2014, whether or not the Afghan security forces are then capable of taking over the fight. Do you agree?
1. For both: Under what circumstances would you authorize military action against Iran's nuclear facilities? Will you intervene to stop the civil war in Syria? If so, what lessons have you learned from our recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya that will shape how you undertake an intervention? How do you plan to accomplish a responsible transition to Afghan leadership for security there? What should be the mission of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after transition, and how many troops will be required to accomplish it? Or do you envision a complete withdrawal of all forces?
2. For both: Should the United States support the spread of democracy abroad? What is the role of democracy assistance in U.S. grand strategy, and how does it relate to our overall national interests? How will you respond to future peaceful uprisings like the Green Revolution or the Arab Spring?
3. For both: Some Americans are concerned that the government has accumulated too much power over the last decade in its effort to develop a robust counterterrorism capability. Others believe we need to keep those powers because the terrorist threat has not abated. Do you plan to sustain the government's new, post-9/11 war-time powers, reportedly including targeted killings and indefinite detentions, indefinitely? If not, will you publicly and explicitly commit to defining a clear end-state to the war against al Qaeda, the achievement of which will terminate the new powers?
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A perpetual concern of policymakers is to learn from the purported "lessons of the past," and in particular to avoid the alleged mistakes of their predecessors. This mentality characterizes almost all presidential administrations that assume power following a presidency by the other party, and was especially explicit in the Obama White House as it took office determined to be the "un-Bush." Exhibit A in this paradigm was the Iraq War, and among the lessons that the Obama team took from Iraq were the profound risks and unintended consequences of American interventions in troubled Middle Eastern countries. These negative outcomes included sectarian strife, the strengthening of extremist elements, regional conflict and instability, massive civilian suffering, and loss of American prestige and influence.
Yet here is the problem. Now that a year and a half has elapsed in the war in Syria, and the Obama administration's non-involvement has resulted in ... sectarian strife, the strengthening of extremist elements, regional conflict and instability, massive civilian suffering, and loss of American prestige and influence.
Consider this grim assessment from today's New York Times article by David Sanger (a reporter generally quite sympathetic to the Obama administration). Reporting on how the arms being supplied to Syrian rebels by Saudi Arabia and Qatar are ending up in the hands of the most virulent Islamic extremists, Sanger observes this "casts into doubt whether the White House's strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States."
Jackson Diehl renders an even more caustic verdict in today's Washington Post. President Obama's posture on Syria "exemplifies every weakness in his foreign policy -- from his excessive faith in "engaging" troublesome foreign leaders to his insistence on multilateralism as an end in itself to his self-defeating caution in asserting American power. The result is not a painful but isolated setback, but an emerging strategic disaster: a war in the heart of the Middle East that is steadily spilling over to vital U.S. allies, such as Turkey and Jordan, and to volatile neighbors, such as Iraq and Lebanon."
In other words, the Obama administration's hands-off approach has contributed to the very outcomes that the White House presumably wanted to avoid, and thought it could avoid by "learning from Iraq."
This does not mean that a more assertive American role -- whether directly supplying arms to the rebels, or more active covert support, or enforcing a no-fly zone, or even stronger measures -- would have been cost-free or even successful. Policymaking is inherently uncertain, with risks, trade-offs, and potential downsides for just about any action taken or not taken. We can't know for sure that an American intervention of some sort would have produced a substantially better outcome. But we can (and do) know that the Obama administration's approach has been disastrous.
What are some potential implications of all this? First, learning from history does not mean rigidly applying the template of the past to the present -- in other words, don't assume that just because one previous intervention turned out one way, any future intervention is bound to turn out the same way. Dissimilarities matter as much as similarities. Second, consider the past alternatives. When assessing a historical episode, don't just look at how it played out, but consider also how alternative courses of action might have transpired. In the case of learning the lessons of Iraq, this means not only examining the many mistakes made by the Bush administration, but also examining how if at all the past containment and sanctions regime could have been maintained, or what the consequences of a Saddam Hussein still in power might be. Third, when weighing the costs of any particular action, consider the costs of inaction as well. In the case of Syria, those latter costs are becoming sadly and regrettably clear.
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The Obama administration has a civil-military problem and, I have reason to believe, they know it. Significant portions of the military believe the administration abandoned them on Iraq, sent them unsupported into battle in Afghanistan hampered by a politically driven timeline, and is jeopardizing national security with unsustainably deep cuts in military spending.
If Obama wins a second term, he and his national security team will have a lot of remedial work to do to repair relations with the military.
I think Vice President Biden made that job even more difficult with his remarkable comments in each of those areas in the VP debate.
On Iraq, Biden criticized Romney-Ryan for recommending that we have a 30,000 stay-behind force in Iraq. When Ryan pointed out that the Obama administration had actually been trying to negotiate a stay-behind force, Biden just smiled mockingly at him, as if Ryan were talking nonsense.
But Ryan was not talking nonsense. The official position of the Obama administration until late in 2011 was that they were seeking a Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) to permit a stay-behind force in Iraq. The exact size was in doubt, but the 30,000 figure was what the military wanted and the White House supported the concept, if not the exact number. The Obama administration wanted this for the very same reason the Bush administration wanted it: It was the best way to solidify the gains of the Iraq surge and to build a stable partnership with Iraq.
Biden knows all of this because he was leading the effort to negotiate the SOFA. Was Biden's mocking smile saying something else, perhaps that Obama was never seriously committed to negotiating a successful SOFA? Was Obama's decision to delegate this task to Biden a sign of how committed Obama was to it? Or how uncommitted he was? Was Biden's guarantee that he would get the SOFA just idle bragging from someone assigned a trivial task?
The U.S. military leadership believed they accomplished something significant in the Iraq surge, and they believed that the Obama administration wanted to get them a SOFA that would help secure those accomplishments. Did Biden tell them otherwise in the debate last night? Or did Biden, as Ryan pointedly asked, simply fail at his SOFA assignment, in which case the mocking laughter is beyond inappropriate?
On Afghanistan, Biden's comments were even more troubling. Let's set aside the extraordinary "mission accomplished" boast, a remarkable thing to say when American men and women continue to risk their lives under very dire circumstances in theater. Biden got away with it, and neither Ryan nor the hapless Martha Raddatz called him out on it.
Where things really got dicey was when, in response to the charge that the Afghan surge withdrawal timeline was driven by political considerations, Biden tried to hide behind the military. Raddatz pressed him on the complaints she is hearing -- we all are hearing -- but Biden dismissed it as nonsense. He pretended that the withdrawal timeline was proposed by the Joint Chiefs rather than imposed by the White House.
That is not true. The Joint Chiefs and the Afghan combatant commander did go along with the White House order, but they proposed a slower, conditions-based timeline and they certainly did not want it announced at the outset.
This is a very dangerous game to play. Because of the strong support for the principle of civilian control among our armed forces, civilians can and do make the military salute and obey orders the military think are inadvisable. Canny commanders-in-chief try to minimize those instances, working with the military to cajole and bargain them into supporting positions that they initially opposed (this is exactly what Bush did with the Iraq surge). But when the White House bigfoots a decision, as the Obama White House did multiple times on Afghanistan, it is the president who must shoulder the political load for the decision.
Biden knows, or should know, that from the military's perspective President Obama imposed an under-resourced Afghan surge, undercut it by announcing the timeline, and interrupted the last fighting season by accelerating the withdrawal. That was his prerogative as commander-in-chief. But if that policy is criticized, as Ryan did in the debate, the Obama White House must be honest about how it came about. Biden cannot pretend that this was the military's plan all along.
Biden tried the same gambit on the defense cuts: "That was the decision of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended to us and agreed to by the president. That is a fact....They made the recommendation first."
Yet, as he surely knows, the White House came up with a budget cut number and then asked the defense department to come up with a strategy that fit under that number. The defense department did not come up with the budget cuts first, they came up with the strategy that they thought, barely, could be viable under those cuts. (Defense had come up with defense cuts on their own earlier, in the hopes that those cuts could be reassigned to more pressing defense priorities, but the Obama White House simply pocketed those cuts and then directed more.)
It gets worse. When Biden and Obama say "defense spending the military didn't ask for' that is incorrect since the military did ask for all that spending -- in the previous year's budget. Actually, Obama asked for it, since it was his budget request. Yes, the following year Obama changed his mind and he ordered the military to adjust to the lower cuts.
I am not sure there are enough Pinocchios in Tuscany to describe how misleading it is to order the military to accept cuts and then pretend that they requested those cuts.
And, dissembling aside, when you play political hardball with the military in that fashion it almost always leads to problems down the line. Serious Obama national security professionals understand this, but they don't seem to have any influence on what the candidates are saying.
Again, it is fully proper as a matter of civil-military relations for the president to impose cuts on Defense, and he can do it in whatever sequence he chooses. But he should not impose the number, receive the military salute, and then turn around and tell the American people that this was all the military's idea.
An administration enjoying strong and healthy relations with the military can probably get away with self-inflicted wounds of the sort that Biden's remarks produced. I am not sure this administration can afford it.
John Gress/Getty Images
In a column in the October 7 Washington Post, I argued that "red lines" with respect to Iran's nuclear program, far from leading us automatically to war, are designed to facilitate diplomacy and prevent conflict. As Iran makes continued progress toward a nuclear weapons capability - and according to a new report by the Institute for Science and International Security, it is now as little as 2-4 months away from having sufficient weapons-grade uranium (WGU) for a single bomb -- defining our red lines takes on increasing importance.
For all of its bluster, the Iranian regime has proceeded carefully to reach this point, expanding its nuclear capabilities while avoiding full-blown conflict with the West. The final stage of its nuclear drive will pose a significant challenge to this strategy, however, as any outright lunge for a nuclear weapon is likely to draw a devastating response. Iran could take any of several approaches to this last leg, from throwing caution to the wind and making a mad dash in the open, to proceeding entirely clandestinely. For this reason, we need not just one but several red lines, closing off all routes available to Iran for achieving a nuclear weapons capability.
The route to an Iranian nuclear weapons capability that receives the most attention is the most straightforward, but perhaps the riskiest for Iran -- a dash using Iran's declared enrichment sites and uranium stockpiles. It is this route which both Israeli PM Netanyahu and ISIS warned about recently. Their worry is straightforward -- as Iran expands its nuclear capacity and increases its stockpile of 19.75 percent uranium, its breakout time diminishes even further, perhaps to the point where a military response could not be mounted quickly enough to prevent Iran from producing and secreting away a bomb's worth of WGU or more.
It is this worry that led Netanyahu to declare his redline -- Iran stockpiling sufficient 19.75 percent uranium to, if further enriched, produce a single nuclear weapon. It is important to recognize, however, that Iran can dial its production of enriched uranium forward or back and thus control the pace of its confrontation with the West -- forward, by increasing the number of centrifuges enriching; back, by sending 19.75 percent uranium to be converted into another form unsuitable for further enrichment, such as fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). Iran in the past has done just this -- moving quickly ahead during lulls in negotiations, and then resuming international talks to diffuse the resulting threats and pressure.
Iran could also proceed in a nonlinear manner that skirts this redline -- for example, by producing small batches of higher-enriched uranium without having first stockpiled a single bomb's worth of 19.75 percent uranium. A prominent Iranian legislator has already asserted, for example, that Iran would begin producing 60 percent enriched uranium for use in nuclear submarines. Iran could also simply continue amassing LEU while perfecting more efficient centrifuges, diminishing its breakout time for a future weapons dash.
Rather than a dash in the open, which would give the U.S. and Israel time and opportunity to mount a military response, Iran may prefer to attempt to limit the IAEA's access to its program and achieve a nuclear weapons capability out of sight of international inspectors. This would be in keeping with Iran's history of nuclear deception and subterfuge.
Iran could, of course, simply expel IAEA inspectors and hope that the US does not respond, but this would be a risky proposition. Far more likely would be incremental steps which reduce the IAEA's access or place obstacles in front of inspectors, in order to divert some portion of Iran's uranium stockpile (e.g. the 19.75 percent uranium removed from Fordow for conversion to fuel plates) to a heretofore undisclosed enrichment site, reduce the certainty with which the inspectors are able to account for Iranian activities at declared enrichment sites, or lengthen the time between inspections to a degree that would not permit a breakout to be detected in a timely fashion.
Because such steps might appear modest to a casual observer, Iran may believe that the U.S. would find it difficult to rally an international response to them. Iran has already reduced its cooperation with the IAEA over the last few years. Alarmingly, as detailed in a recent Washington Post article, Iran's far-fetched accusations that IAEA inspectors have engaged in acts of sabotage may represent an effort to establish a pretext to reduce that cooperation further.
There are further routes still that Iran could take to break out and achieve a nuclear weapons capability. It could attempt not simply to divert declared uranium stockpiles to a undisclosed enrichment facility, but to create an entirely parallel, covert uranium supply, conversion, and enrichment chain using the expertise and procurement networks it has gained from its disclosed program. It could also seek to acquire a nuclear weapon, or simply the fuel for one, from an existing nuclear power such as North Korea, with which it already cooperates extensively. Iran would face serious obstacles in either scenario, but neither can be discounted entirely.
By understanding Iran's pathways for completing the final stage of its nuclear drive, the U.S. and our allies can devise red lines -- whether private or publicly announced -- which fence off those pathways. These red lines should take into account not only Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium, but also the level to which it enriches any uranium, the access it affords IAEA inspectors, the expansion of its centrifuge program and other weapons-applicable technologies, as well as any covert efforts to build additional nuclear sites or acquire nuclear materials abroad.
Perhaps more importantly, however, such an analysis of Iran's pathways to a weapon can help policymakers strengthen existing tools and devise new approaches -- from better intelligence collection, to more focused efforts to enforce sanctions and stymie Iranian nuclear procurement efforts, to joint warnings from the U.N. or other multilateral bodies -- to ensure that Iran never approaches those red lines in the first place.
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
I've periodically commented here at Shadow Government on the issue of religious freedom, especially in the context of the Arab Awakening and the Obama administration's relatively weak commitment to an effective international religious freedom policy. On that note, Shadow readers might be interested in an article I've just written here for Policy Review, taking a deeper look at the potential connection between international religious freedom and national security.
Religious freedom is one of those issues that few leaders in the American national security community would actually oppose (after all it is one of our nation's founding principles), but few are willing to make it a foreign policy priority because it is often regarded as a merely humanitarian issue of little if any strategic consequence. In the article I explore some possible ways that religious freedom might actually be related to other strategic priorities such as peace and stability, and ways that religious freedom violations might actually be indicators of potential security threats. This leads to my provisional conclusion that "There is not a single nation in the world that both respects religious freedom and poses a security threat to the United States." In turn, I suggest ways that making international religious freedom more of a policy priority can potentially help diagnose, ameliorate, and even prevent emerging security concerns.
This is admittedly just an initial exploration, and my conclusions are both tentative and speculative. At a minimum I hope it encourages deeper and more sustained research into this area (PhD students take note: This could make for an interesting dissertation topic). And for the policy community, as I've said before I hope that religious liberty advocates will consider whether and why this issue might have strategic relevance beyond its innate moral appeal. As the broader Middle East faces an uncertain future and continues to be convulsed by competing visions that largely fall along the fault lines of religious intolerance and religious tolerance, an effective religious freedom policy will be a strategic necessity for the next four years -- regardless of which presidential candidate wins on November 6.
There has been a lot of commentary on the Obama administration's "pivot" (or "rebalance") to Asia here at Shadow Government. Most commentators have praised Secretary Clinton's activism towards Southeast Asia, but pointed out that the rhetoric of the pivot will look hollow without a real trade strategy and adequate resourcing for our forward military forces. This past month it looks like the wheels may have started coming off on the trade strategy axle.
In early September regional leaders met at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting in Vladivostok, sans Barack Obama who was unwilling to skip town in election season, and courtesy of Vladmir Putin who was unwilling to schedule the meeting at a time the U.S. President could attend. President Obama's absence was not the end of the world: Bill Clinton skipped two APEC summits and managed to compensate the next year (for the record, George W. Bush missed none...but that was before we were "back in Asia" as the current White House likes to say). The real problem at Vladivostok was the hallway banter by the other delegates about TPP -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- that forms the core of the administration's strategy for building a regional economic architecture that includes us and strives for WTO-consistent trade liberalization and rule-making. The overall critique in Vladivostok was that the U.S. side is playing small ball on TPP, to the frustration of multiple stakeholders. The U.S. business community is worried at the lack of market access in the negotiations; the Australians and Singaporeans are hedging with Asian-only negotiations because of what they see as incrementalism by USTR; and Japanese officials are dismayed by administration signals discouraging Tokyo from expressing readiness to join TPP.
This all matters because of the other summitry gossip that is coming out of Asia. On November 18-20, the Cambodians will be hosting the East Asia Summit, which President Obama joined with great fanfare last year and which the president will be able to attend this year because it is after the U.S. elections. The main deliverable on economics at that summit will be a decision within the region to proceed with the RCEP -- an Asian "Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership" that includes the ten ASEAN states, Japan, China, Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand -- and does not include the United States. The Cambodians' current plan for the November summit is to hold an RCEP inaugural meeting while President Obama waits outside the room cooling his heels with Vladmir Putin (since Russia is also not included in the regional trade deal). Stunningly, our allies Japan, Australia ,and Korea all appear to be on board with this scenario.
At one level this resembles the silliness of a junior high school prom, but at another level it could be the moment people start writing the obituary for the "pivot." To prevent that, a returning Obama administration or a new Romney administration has to put more oomph into the current anemic U.S. trade strategy. The RCEP launch will be embarrassing, but since those talks have no prospect of hitting a WTO-compliant level of trade liberalization, the United States can retake center stage again by showing that it can form an even more impressive coalition of trade liberalizing states. This means getting Japan in to TPP; leveraging Canada and Mexico in the TPP process (which will also help us counter Brazilian efforts to separate South America from us); and beginning to move on a complementary trans-Atlantic FTA process. The "pivot" was never sustainable without like-minded allies in our hemisphere and Europe and now is the time to recognize that and develop a strategy accordingly.
The next administration will also have to demonstrate credibility by moving to secure trade promotion authority (TPA) from the Congress (just can't get around Article One Section Eight of the Constitution). Finally, the administration had better start thinking about new ways to engage on economic issues within the EAS that keep us in the regional dialogue without requiring a high-standard FTA with countries like Laos or Burma. Bob Zoellick was a master of that art at USTR when he pioneered the Enterprise for ASEAN Initiative -- a flexible framework that allowed a la carte participation by countries ranging from an FTA (Singapore) to establishing very basic economic dialogues (Cambodia).
In short, for trade to continue underpinning U.S. leadership in Asia, we will have to go global, be agile within the region, and give a shot of adrenaline to USTR. Otherwise, the "pivot" will be a minor footnote in the textbooks.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
The current crisis in North Africa has cast into sharp relief the decline of American sea power. According to press reports, the Pentagon has dispatched two destroyers (actual American destroyers, not the Russian warships displayed during the tribute to American veterans at last week's Democratic National Convention), to waters off Libya. Such a response is prudent. Indeed, it would scarcely be remarkable except for the fact that, according to press reports, those two destroyers constitute fully half of the U.S. naval presence in the Mediterranean. That is, with a civil war raging in Syria and unrest in Egypt and Libya, the United States has maintained only four destroyers near these hot spots.
Not too many years ago, the United States would have routinely deployed a much more powerful force in the Mediterranean, including a carrier strike group. Not too long ago, the Marines who have reportedly been dispatched to protect U.S. diplomatic missions in Libya would have deployed from nearby amphibious ships, not from places far away.
It is at times like this that the erosion of American sea power is most apparent. Today, the U.S. Navy is the smallest it has been since 1916 and is stretched thin beyond prudence and good operational sense. We should all hope that the United States will not need to evacuate American citizens or use force to defend them, for if we do, we may very well regret the neglect of sea power.
As the Syrian civil war drags on, and Israel moves ever closer to attacking Iran's nuclear sites, the Obama Administration seems fixated on just one objective: delaying anything from happening in the Middle East before Election Day. The White House remains passive as Bashar al-Assad continues to up the military ante against the opposition. And it continues to send high level officials to Jerusalem bringing gifts of more military machinery that, it is hoped, will assuage the Israelis for the next few months.
Despite assistance from Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, with some sotto voce help from Turkey as well, after eighteen months the rebels still have been unable to dislodge Assad. Supported by Iranians on the ground, and the Russians and the Chinese in the UN, the Syrian dictator has shown no compunction about killing as many men, women and children as it takes to quell the rebellion. He continues to play the ethnic card as well: his Kurdish PKK allies have stepped up their terrorist attacks in southeastern Turkey, while Syria's Christian communities, long protected by Assad and his father, remain nervously neutral.
At the same time, Assad's Alawi supporters are hedging their bets. They have begun a process of ethnically cleansing those enclaves where they are in the majority. It is presumed that if all else fails for the Alawis, they will withdraw to their mountain fastnesses, and take Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons with them, so as to deter any attacks from the majority Sunnis that will have come to power. Indeed, the increasingly ethnic nature of the Syrian conflict has already spilled over into both Lebanon and Iraq, promising a major regional convulsion that would likely drag in Iran, Turkey, the Gulf States and perhaps Israel as well.
Israel, in the meantime, continues to express its frustration with the lack of progress in the diplomatic talks with Iran, even as Tehran continues to upgrade its centrifuges, build more of them, and increase the number of cascades to enrich its uranium; fortify its facilities, especially at its underground Fordo site; and play cat-and-mouse with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) whose reports increasingly are confirming Israel's worst fears. As if that were not enough, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have stepped up their exterminationist rhetoric, calling for the removal of the cancer that is Israel.
Washington's passivity has only aggravated both situations. The Syrian civil war calls for more drastic American action. After all, when rioters initially threw stones at Assad's men, his forces responded by using light weapons against the demonstrators. When the rebels obtained light weapons, Assad's military resorted to heavy weapons. As the rebels began to use mortars, the Syrian Army attacked with tanks. And so it has gone until now, when Assad has called in his air forces to bomb the opposition into oblivion. While there is no immediate need for American military intervention, the United States could certainly do more to strengthen the hand of the rebels. Washington could ship more, and more sophisticated, arms to the rebels via their allies, who certainly can afford to pay for American equipment. And the United States could also provide more intelligence support, if not directly to the rebels, then indirectly through Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. By failing to step up its support of the rebels, the Administration undermines its credibility, both with the rebels whom it professes to support, and with Assad, whose departure it so vocally seeks.
As for the impasse with Iran, here too, the key to achieving American objectives is the credibility of American pronouncements. There is more than Washington can do as it attempts win the trust of Israel's key decision makers on any Israeli attack-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Supplying missile defense systems is simply not enough for a nation that cannot tolerate even the most minimal probability that a nuclear weapon could penetrate those defenses.
To begin with, the Administration should not backslide on the question of Iran's ability to enrich uranium. The original US position was that enrichment should terminate; any indication of a more pliable position simply reinforces the view in both Tehran and Jerusalem that Washington is not serious about stopping the Iranian program. In addition, the Obama Administration should close the massive loopholes that it has created in the sanctions program: there is no reason why exceptions should be made for China or any of the other seventeen countries that continue to buy Iranian oil without penalty. Washington's willingness to look the other way further intensifies Israeli fears that, at the end of the day, Iran will develop a nuclear capability while America and the West wring their hands.
An Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is likely to prove counterproductive. Even an American attack may not shut down the Iranian program. As with Syria, so with Iran and Israel: the only way to achieve American objectives is to restore American credibility in the region. It does not help at all that the Administration not only continues to talk of a "pivot" to Asia, but is prepared to tolerate a massive reduction in American defense capability, which will surely signal an abrupt end to American presence in the region. Unless and until the Administration recognizes that it is futile, and dangerous, both to tread water until November, and treat the U.S. defense program as a hostage to tax increases, the situation in the Middle East will continue to deteriorate, to the point where, possibly as soon as October, it may well spin out of anyone's control.
The best description of the Obama doctrine in the Middle East is the one offered by a White House staffer in a revealing interview last year: "leading from behind."
At the time, the moniker was meant to signify that the Obama administration would let other states take the more prominent lead positions in confronting the challenges posed by the serial revolutions known as the "Arab Uprising." The United States would nudge things along from the back seat. This fit rather well with how the administration saw the Libyan intervention, though in truth the allies began to falter and the U.S. role grew much larger than advertised. However, it is hard to believe that without the out-in-front leadership of the U.K. and France, the Obama administration would have pushed forward a Libyan intervention. If the United States led at all in Libya, it was from behind the U.K. and France, and arguably behind the Arab League.
There is another way in which "leading from behind" might be an apt description of the Obama administration approach in the region: leading from behind events. That is, rather than dictating events -- what was called "hurrying up history" in the Bush era -- the administration has been more willing to let events unfold, to see where history takes us and then, if possible, get on the right side of history.
This description seems to fit the Egypt story, where the United States initially was unwilling to join in the effort to push Mubarak out of office, but joined later when Mubarak's early departure was perceived as the inevitable outcome. When a different outcome took shape in Bahrain, the United States got behind that, too.
A similar story is playing out in Syria. The United States has offered strong words of outrage at the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the Syrian civil war, but has not matched dramatic rhetoric with dramatic action. Alas, there is plenty of dramatic action on the ground in Syria. The latest escalation suggests the Syrian civil war could be morphing into a full-scale conflagration.
The international community is now more than a few steps behind events -- leading from behind is becoming following from behind. And follow we must, for U.S. interests are too inextricably tied to the region for us to ignore what is happening.
President Obama often talks about trying to avoid distractions that would disrupt his focus away from what he considers to be the big issues at stake in his reelection, primarily issues of domestic policy and the economy. If events continue along their current trajectory, Syria may be one such distraction that he cannot avoid. Leading from behind may walk everyone right into a quagmire.
D. Leal Olivas/AFP/GettyImages
The metaphorical derecho of the Supreme Court's controversial decision on health care followed by the physical derecho that knocked out power in D.C. combined to drive another story out of the headlines. But as things slowly return to normal, that story is worth returning to, because it helps clarify what "normal" has been. The story is the mushrooming revelations about the Obama administration's suboptimal national security policy-making process.
The most shocking charges have come in a series of excerpts from Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran's new book. The book makes a string of damning charges: that the Obama team sought to suppress intelligence that ran counter to its policies; that the president was actually disengaged from the policy process and not the forceful decider his spinners were claiming; that the team let petty personal feuds trump wise policy; and so on. This comes on the heels of other deeply sourced accounts that reported that the White House political office was in the room when the national security team was deciding on targets for drone strikes, and the extent to which someone leaked details about covert operations that made Obama look strong on national security.
I agree with Paul Miller that the excerpts from the Chandrasekaran's book have a tabloid feel to them, and may indeed contain as much distortionary spin as any White House press spokesman's daily briefing. It is not too hard to cherry-pick vignettes that ring false. For instance, this brief account strikes me as misleading:
But in more than two hours of discussion, the 14-member war cabinet -- which included Vice President Biden, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- never asked McChrystal why he wanted so many more marines in Helmand. The civilians didn't know enough about Afghanistan to focus on that issue. They were also concerned about micromanaging the war, of looking like President Lyndon B. Johnson picking bombing targets in North Vietnam.
From his seat along the wall, Obama's top adviser on the Afghan war, Douglas E. Lute, believed that those around the table were missing a crucial point. Instead of arguing about counterinsurgency strategy -- whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai would improve and whether the Pakistanis would crack down on Taliban sanctuaries -- they should have focused more on how the forces would be employed. That would have revealed how the military had misused the first wave of troops Obama authorized.
Lute may or may not have felt that way, but the book makes it sound like that was the end of the matter. But Lute was uniquely positioned to address this problem by virtue of his privileged access to the president and to Jones and his control over the paperflow for the review. So I think it is more likely that the account describes a problem that provoked Lute into taking some remedial action. Only reporting the problem without reporting the remedial action paints a distorted picture.
Yet, even after discounting for such likely distortions, the picture that remains is disturbing. It would seem to put to rest the myth that this administration has been vastly superior to historical norms in terms of bureaucratic process. And it makes some of the gushing words of the myth-purveyors almost cringe-worthy when reconsidered in context.
Take, for example, our own FP's David Rothkopf:
To achieve these goals has required more than just changing the guy in the Oval Office or the folks around him. It has required more than just taking old Bush policy papers, reading their conclusions and doing something different. It has involved a degree of disciplined policy formation and program management that actually, deliberately began by taking a page or two out of the Bush handbook ... not the George W. Bush handbook, however, but that created by his father and his national security team, led by General Brent Scowcroft.
Current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon explicitly acknowledges that the Scowcroft model and structure was a source of much of the initial organization of the Obama team, with the NSC staff organization, principals' meetings, deputies' meetings and working group meetings following George H.W. Bush era precedents.
But even a proven structure won't work if the president and his team do not have the discipline to work within it. The George W. Bush process did not; the president enabled the creation of back channels that were taken advantage of by both the vice president and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and the result -- even in the eyes of top Bush officials -- was muddled and sometimes profoundly flawed execution.
Barack Obama however, made up for his lack of prior foreign policy experience, by both picking very experienced advisors and then by insisting upon a rigorous process.
Or David Ignatius:
The foreign policy challenges of the past two months were also the first test of the new national security adviser, Tom Donilon. True to his reputation as a political "Mr. Fix-It," he was low-key, to the point of near-invisibility -- and he'll need to present a stronger public face to succeed in that job. But he ran a smooth and seamless policy process, without the competing voices that have sometimes been heard over the past two years.
Donilon's advantage, it appears, is that he is master of the house at the National Security Council. His predecessor, Gen. Jim Jones, also tried to run an orderly process, but he had to look over his shoulder at Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff who operated in a sort of prime ministerial role. Emanuel often used Donilon (who was Jones's deputy) as his personal foreign policy operative, which confused lines of responsibility.
"What we have now is a tightly aligned, single process for foreign policy," a senior White House official said when asked what difference the departures of Emanuel and Jones had made.
Or Edward Luce:
‘The truth is that President Obama is his own Henry Kissinger -- no one else plays that role,' says a senior official. 'Every administration reflects the personality of the president. This president wants all the trains routed through the Oval Office.'... 'By getting the process right, we are improving the quality of decisions.'... At the end of each meeting, the president summarizes what everyone has said and the arguments each has made with a real lawyer's clarity," says a participant to the NSC principals meeting, which includes Mr Gates and Mrs Clinton. 'When the president finally makes a decision, it is with the full facts and usually shows a high calibre of judgment.'
It didn't take a lot of insider knowledge at the time to recognize that those puffed-up descriptions probably exaggerated the quality of the national security policy process. Now, thanks to a wave of books drawing on extensive insider leaks, it is possible to see just how unduly flattering the early praise was.
When the pundits return to national security issues -- as surely they must at some point in the coming months -- perhaps they will return with a bit more realistic awareness of the process problems that have plagued this administration, just as they plagued previous ones.
Update: A friend sent me a note suggesting that I was guilty of distortion myself when I cherry-picked the Chandrasekaran piece, particularly when I ended the quote where I did. He points out that the very next paragraph would seem to rebut my claim. It reads:
After the meeting, Lute and his staff assembled a list of follow-up questions for McChrystal. Lute, a three-star general, asked McChrystal to provide more explanation of the location of the bubbles. At the war cabinet's next meeting, McChrystal talked briefly about the need to "demonstrate momentum" in Helmand. To Lute, the answer seemed unsatisfactory, but nobody around the table pressed McChrystal any further.
My friend is right that I should have included that extra paragraph, but I think my basic point still stands regardless: Surely Lute was perfectly positioned to follow up further and press the matter again with McChrystal? Yet the (entire) excerpt makes it seem like he did not, like his unsatisfactory initial exchange was the end of the matter. Now, giving Chandrasekaran the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he did investigate further and found no evidence of any follow-up. If that is the case, given the extensive reporting in the piece, it is a pretty damning incident, indeed. For my money, I suspect that Lute and others took some remedial action that is not covered in the reporting.
Either way, my overall thesis seems on solid ground: The Obama national security process has been no where near as idyllic as the boosters have claimed.
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
The Washington Post has run a few excerpts from Rajiv Chandrasekaran's latest book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan. It contains such shockers as the revelation that inter-service rivalry at the Pentagon led to bureaucratically sub-rational outcomes. As Captain Renault said to Rick, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"
Rajiv gets a few things right. He claims that "U.S. commanders thought that managing the NATO alliance was more important than winning the war." A lot of the senior brass seems never to have fully internalized the strategic importance of the war in Afghanistan, despite two presidents insisting that it was a vital American national security interest. When Bush and Obama can agree on something, you have to at least consider they may be right.
But much of the book dwells on interagency rivalry in Washington during the early months of the Obama administration, when I served as a staffer on the NSC. Here, Chandrasekaran embellishes, dramatizes, and exaggerates until the story is no longer recognizable.
In Chandrasekaran's telling, there was an epic rivalry between the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, and the NSC's special coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Doug Lute. I worked for Lute during some of the period covered by Chandrasekaran's story.
There was plainly a rivalry of sorts, but Chandrasekaran blows it out of all proportion and neglects obvious historical and institutional factors at play. The NSC and the State Department have been rivals since the NSC was created in 1947, and the rivalry endures across policy issues and regardless of personalities. Add to the standard institutional competition the fact that the Obama administration decided to have two separate 'special' leads for Af-Pak policy, one at State and one at NSC, and it is unsurprising that the two offices clashed over their confusing, overlapping and unclear roles. That's the natural consequence of the president's poor managerial decisions and the administration's neglect of clear institutional organization.
Instead of recognizing these obvious, if un-dramatic, facts, Chandrasekaran claims that the rivalry between Lute and Holbrooke cost the United States the opportunity to reach a peace deal with the Taliban in 2009-10. He claims that "The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield," in part because of the rivalry. The claim is false. No such peace deal was within reach. Chandrasekaran even concedes that "It was not clear that [the Taliban's] leader, the reclusive Mullah Mohammed Omar, wanted to talk" to the United States. Indeed, despite Lute and Holbrooke's differences, they agreed on the fundamental policy of pursuing talks to end the war and the Obama administration has, however falteringly, made some progress towards that goal.
But Chandrasekaran goes so far as to say that "[National Security Advisor James] Jones and Lute hated the thought of Holbrooke basking in the spotlight as he did after peace in the Balkans." The accusation that two professional military men would let a personality conflict obstruct the president's ability to wage and win a war is petty, unfounded and worthy of the National Enquirer, not the Washington Post.
In fact, Lute went out of his way to re-engineer the interagency process and make a great display of co-chairing a new higher-level interagency forum with Holbrooke, something neither Chandrasekaran nor Woodward picked up on in their respective books. Lute and Holbrooke kept their disagreements out of the public eye, as professionals are supposed to do.
Lute and Holbrooke clashed, but that's what bureaucrats do, especially when there are real issues at stake that they disagree about. Chandrasekaran relates that Lute believed that Holbrooke "had ruined his relationships with Karzai, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul and officials in the Pakistani government." That's essentially true; I don't know many who would dispute that account. Holbrooke's histrionics and his belief that the U.S. should have tilted the playing field in the 2009 Afghan presidential election were responsible for much of the damage to U.S.-Afghan relations in the early years of the Obama administration.
I have always admired what Lute was able to accomplish during the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations. He provided crucial continuity during the first war-time presidential transition since 1968. He cooperated with the incoming administration as a foreign policy professional, embodying the non-partisan ethos that the community used to stand for. And, when the Obama team inexplicably demoted his position, he accepted it with a rare humility not often found among bureaucrats. A lesser man would have resigned to nurse his wounded pride. I like to think that he stayed because he believed, rightly, that the job was too important to put his ego first.
That doesn't mean Lute's record is flawless. I have been a frequent critic of the Obama administration's record on Afghanistan, some of which inevitably must reflect on Lute as the administration's longest-serving point-man on Afghan policy. But that is an honest disagreement on policy, the sort of thing that should drive public debate. Chandrasekaran may sell books with his tabloid accusations, but history will set the record straight.
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Peter Bergen has a new piece up on CNN's website that argues the United States can declare victory over al Qaeda and wind down the war against the group. Reading through his article, I found several places where I profoundly disagreed with his analysis and therefore with his overall conclusion that al Qaeda has been defeated.
First, Bergen begins with a false analogy by arguing that the current war is nothing like World War II, and that therefore there can be no culminating peace as was signed between the Allies and Nazi Germany. This argument implies that a definitive victory over al Qaeda, one on the model and scale of the victory over the Nazis, is impossible. The current war is indeed nothing like WWII -- it's an irregular conflict being fought against an insurgent group, while WWII (for the most part), was a regular conflict fought against recognizable nation-states. It might therefore be impossible to sign a peace treaty on the decks of a battleship when this war ends, but it is entirely possible to win irregular wars and to win them as definitively and recognizably as WWII was won, as the examples of multiple conflicts throughout the twentieth century show. For instance, from 1898-1954, the U.S. absolutely defeated three separate insurgencies in the Philippines, including a nationalist insurgency, an insurgency by local Muslims, and a communist insurgency. The British took on and repeatedly defeated insurgencies (the Boers, the Malay communists, and the Kenyan Mau-Mau, for instance), and it is actually difficult to find, beyond the Sandinistas and Castro's group, an insurgency that has succeeded in Latin America.
Second, Bergen argues that the war against al Qaeda is not an "essential challenge" to the U.S. and thus can be safely relegated to some level of effort short of war. It is true that the death of 3,000 Americans in the first attack on the U.S. homeland since WWII was not an existential threat to the U.S., nor have the pinpricks that al Qaeda has managed since 9-11 posed a serious challenge to the continued existence of the United States. On the other hand, this assessment fails to take into consideration the global growth of al Qaeda, its absorption of every other major jihadist group on the planet, and its ability to take and control territory throughout the Muslim-majority world. While I have heard some deride this spread as only threatening the 'garden-spots' of the world, we need to remind ourselves that it was from just this sort of uncontrolled territory that 9-11 was carried out, and once the 'garden-spots' are taken, our vital lines of communications and territories that we (apparently) care more about will be threatened. In addition, I would note that it has only been through our wartime footing that we have managed to keep al Qaeda in even this loose net. If we downgrade our effort, al Qaeda will be able to grow even faster and push its control even further.
Third and fourth, the article goes on to conclude that it is possible to "declare victory" and move on because 1) al Qaeda's offensive capabilities are "puny" and 2) U.S. defenses are strong. The first of these assessments is based on an assumption about al Qaeda that is unwarranted; that is, that al Qaeda's main objective and goal is to attack the United States. The recent release of documents from Abbottabad make it clear that attacking the United States was (and is) but the first step in a staged strategic plan, a plan that begins by attriting the United States, and weakening it so much that the United States will be forced out of all Muslim-majority countries. The next stage of al Qaeda's strategic plan is to take over and control territory, declaring "emirates" that will be able to spread safely because the United States will be too weak to intervene. This means that the affiliates are not just dangerous when they attack the United States (which Bergen implies in his article), but are a threat to our security when they overthrow local governments and set up local emirates that have greater, global ambitions. I would also note that while polling data is important for understanding how well we are doing in our fight against al Qaeda -- and here the indications are positive -- it is a fact that insurgencies need only a tiny percentage of active support in order to be self-sustaining (usually defined as 5 percent of the populace). Al Qaeda would like the consent of the governed, but they are perfectly happy to violently enforce obedience to their rule when necessary. And by the way: No al Qaeda affiliate or partner (including the Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, or the Shabaab) has been deposed from power by an uprising of the local population alone. They have needed outside intervention in order to expel the insurgents, even when the people have hated al Qaeda's often brutal rule.
On Bergen's second point, I agree that U.S. defenses are strong, but disagree profoundly with the current mission of Special Operation Forces as the right method to defeat al Qaeda. This counter-terrorism mission is based on killing al Qaeda members, i.e. attrition, a strategy that assumes that al Qaeda is still a terrorist group as it was in the 1990s. This is simply not true. Even then, the group's leadership aspired to bigger things, and al Qaeda has now succeeded in becoming an insurgent group, one that takes and holds territory, recruits far more soldiers than we can kill, sets up shadow governance and attempts to overthrow governments around the Muslim-majority world. While attrition can succeed as a strategy against terrorist groups (see i.e. the Spanish and French fight against ETA), it is absolutely counterproductive against an insurgency, which simply uses the killings to recruit more members and to fuel its propaganda.
Fifth, some part of Bergen's declaration of victory is based on wishful thinking. He argues, for instance, that killing or capturing AQAP's bomb-maker will 'likely' cause the threat from AQAP to recede. This assumes that 1) the bomb-maker never trained replacements and 2) that AQAP is incapable of thinking up other ways to attack us. It also ignores the real threat from AQAP if it manages to overthrow the government in Sana'a and push on into Saudi Arabia.
Finally, the last sentence of his article is a straw man. The objective of the Allied war on the Nazis was the same as every other regular war: To break the enemy's will to resist. It was simply not necessary to kill every Nazi in order to achieve this objective. The objective of irregular wars is rather different, however: to secure the population by clearing out the insurgents; then holding the territory through persistent presence; and finally creating the political conditions necessary to prevent any further appeal by the remaining insurgents. In this view, winning against al Qaeda does not depend on body counts, but rather would look very much like victories against other insurgents: the spreading of security for populations in Somalia, Yemen, the Sahel, and elsewhere; the prevention of a return of al-Qaeda to these cleared areas; and the empowerment of legitimate governments that can control and police their own territories. By these standards, we have not yet defeated al Qaeda; in fact, beyond Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, we have hardly engaged the enemy at all.
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The world's focus, which increasingly suffers from attention deficit disorder, has shifted to Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi has been named winner of that country's first-ever truly democratic presidential election. Already consigned to yesterday's forgotten news is the passing of Saudi Arabia's Prince Nayef, and the succession of his younger brothers Prince Salman and Prince Ahmed respectively, to the positions of Crown Prince and Interior Minister. The changes in Riyadh should not be so quickly forgotten, however, for they portend more of the same in Saudi Arabia, with potentially significant implications both for the balance of power in the Arabian Gulf and relations with the United States.
The passing of Prince Nayef, just nine months after the death of his older brother and predecessor as Crown Prince, Prince Sultan, is even more rapid than the turnover in the Soviet leadership during the period 1982-1985. At that time, Leonid Brezhnev was succeeded first by Yuri Andropov, and then when Andropov suddenly passed away just two years later, by Konstantin Chernenko, who died thirteen months after taking office. Prince Sultan also held the post of Defense Minister -- Prince Salman succeeded him in that role, and remains Defense Minister. Prince Salman, who is 76, and has already suffered a stroke, may nevertheless remain active for a decade or more; King Abdullah is 88, after all. Still one wonders how long the current generation of Saudi princes will remain at the helm of the country that was united and founded 80 years ago by their father, King Abdul Aziz.
Unlike Prince Nayef, whose cooperation with the United States against al Qaeda and related terrorists never got in the way of his conservative, indeed fundamentalist, unease regarding all things Western, Prince Salman has the reputation of being a more open-minded and forward-looking (though cautious) individual, evidently cut from the same cloth as King Abdullah. In addition, during his tenure at the Defense Ministry, he has presided over the largest-yet arms purchase from the United States, totaling $90 billion, up from an announced $60 billion at the end of 2011. These purchases include both aircrafts and ships, the latter to modernize the Eastern Fleet, headquartered at Jubail, in the heart of the Saudi oil rich Shia populated Eastern Province.
Both the air and naval deals had been contemplated for years, but nothing was finalized until Prince Salman took the helm of the Defense Ministry after Prince Sultan's passing. The decision to undertake both deals is crucial for the preservation of an American industrial base that is already reeling in the wake of U.S. Department of Defense budget cuts. It reflects the newly named Crown Prince's readiness to maintain the close military ties that characterize U.S.-Saudi relations. The French had tried every possible means, including visits by President Sarkozy, to win the navy contract.
Equally important, the fact that Prince Salman decided upon both contracts so quickly after assuming office points to a degree of decisiveness not seen in the Saudi defense ministry for some time. (The decision to send troops to Bahrain was made at a much higher level). This too bodes well for the United States.
Standing behind Prince Salman in the line of succession are Prince Ahmed, promoted to Interior Minister in succession to Prince Nayef, and who is in his early seventies and behind him, informed Saudis believe, Prince Mukhtar, who is in his sixties. The latter probably represents the transition to the next generation of Saudi leaders. With so much turmoil in the region, the smooth Saudi transition is to be welcomed. Hopefully when the time for another such transition takes place, it will be equally smooth.
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Much of the initial commentary on Julian Assange's surprise bid for political asylum in Ecuador has centered on the question of, why Ecuador? After all, Assange has fashioned himself as a paladin of free speech and government transparency, even as Ecuador's radical populist president Rafael Correa's campaign of intimidation against his own country's free press has been assailed around the world, including his $40 million lawsuit against a leading newspaper and his systematic shuttering of news outlets that don't display an appropriate sympathy for the government line.
Yet if one understands Assange not as a paragon of freedom of expression, but simply as an angry, maladjusted individual who has sought to damage the United States, not because of its alleged lack of openness, but because he sees it as the guarantor of an international system from which he is completely alienated, then his bid for asylum in Ecuador makes perfect sense.
Indeed, he certainly would find a home in Ecuador.
For his part, President Correa appears to have his own psychological tics about the United States. Although he received his PhD in economics here, his father was also jailed here for drug trafficking. He has also consistently railed about the "neo-liberal" world economic order, evidently resenting his country's relatively powerless role in it and its relation to Ecuador's recent history of political instability.
Thus, his presidency has been one of conflict with established international institutions and practices of that order, as well as pretending that the traditional determinants of international power and influence no longer apply. He's all South and no North.
In fact, the quixotic, anti-"system" campaigns of Assange and Correa recently converged when the two sat down together for a fawning satellite interview over the news outlet RT TV (funded by the Kremlin). It was a veritable anti-American love-fest, with Correa telling Assange, "Welcome to the club of those who are persecuted!"
So far, the only response from the Obama administration on Assange's Ecuador asylum bid has been a passive statement from the State Department, saying that it was "a matter between Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Ecuador."
That may be an appropriate public response, but privately the administration ought to make it clear to the Correa government that there will be serious repercussions if asylum is granted to Assange. The temptation to grant it will be great for Correa, who will bask in the global attention it would bring, as well as further burnishing his radical credentials. So far, his anti-"system" posturing and preening has come at no cost to him. It's time he learned there are limits to such behavior.
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Whatever your perspective about counterinsurgency (COIN), there is one position that is clearly wrong: the view that debate about COIN is not important, necessary, or productive, as retired Army colonel Robert Killebrew recently suggested over at the Best Defense. Beyond advancing the peculiar idea that a contentious issue in American foreign policy merits no further discussion, Killebrew has it exactly backwards: The debate over COIN is at an important turning point, and is in many ways just getting started. Scholars and strategic thinkers are increasingly engaging the ideas of counterinsurgency in new and sophisticated ways. This development should hearten supporters of the intellectual enterprise generally ,as well as those who embrace the notion that better thinking can lead to better policy.
Last week the Robert S. Strauss Center at the University of Texas (UT) sponsored a workshop, Reassessing Counterinsurgency, together with partners from King's College London and the University of Queensland. The workshop brought together scholars and practitioners to tackle the subject of counterinsurgency in critically new ways. It included COIN's most articulate advocates and critics, policy experts, strategic analysts, historians, and political scientists from the U.S., Britain, and beyond who are doing path-breaking new work on the subject.
At least one thing became clear over a day and a half of refreshingly nuanced discussion. Despite years of attention in the Beltway, the counterinsurgency debate remains remarkably muddled. Terms are still frustratingly ill-defined. Distinctions between tactical advice and strategic direction are lost in the jumble, as larger disagreements over policy in Iraq and Afghanistan are tangled into the discussion about COIN. Scholars bristle at what they see as the intellectual shallowness and lack of theoretical rigor of counterinsurgency ideas, while policy hands and some military officers have no patience for what they perceive as the academy's tendency to suffer from analysis paralysis.
The confused mishmash notwithstanding, the UT workshop surfaced a few recurring themes. As the army is in the midst of revising their counterinsurgency manual, there are at least four key sets of questions that doctrine writers might consider, and that should help shape the scholarly research agenda and the next phase of the debate:
1. Are We Speaking the Same Language?
If the first step in developing good theory is defining terms, then there is much work still to be done in counterinsurgency. There is a growing consensus that the term itself is ambiguous, misused, and has experienced "conceptual stretching." As one workshop participant has written, "in a remarkably short period of time, counterinsurgency has become the new Kuhnian paradigm, or normal science, for non-kinetic (or limited kinetic) warfare. However it is far from obvious that this framework truly captures the dynamics that are occurring in an increasingly complex and interconnected world."
Is "counterinsurgency" merely one type of what scholar Harry Eckstein referred to as "internal war"? If so, how should we understand its features as compared to other manifestations of internal war, such as civil war and revolutions? Taking one step further back, is war divisible into such classifications, or, instead, as Clausewitz would have it, always a chameleon? This most fundamental conceptual question -- how (or whether) to subdivide conflict analytically and how counterinsurgency fits into a broader typology -- has received surprisingly little attention in the debate over COIN.
There are other important, and largely unanswered, questions. What are the differences between "first-party COIN" -- that conducted by a state within its own territory -- and "third-party COIN" conducted by an intervening outside power? Is there a difference between "big COIN," or large-scale state-building, and the more modest ambitions of "little COIN," focused on small-scale assistance? If these different types of COIN are significantly dissimilar propositions, should they be called the same thing? The gaps in the theoretical and scholarly literature are legion, and they can only be filled by continued research, better evidence, thinking, and yes, debate.
2. Is Field Manual 3-24 COIN? Is COIN Field Manual 3-24?
These discussions also raise the important question of how to situate the Army's Field Manual (FM) 3-24, published in December 2006, in the broader literature on COIN. In disputes over counterinsurgency, FM 3-24 and COIN are frequently conflated. Yet their precise relationship remains unclear. Did FM 3-24 represent the state of the art in thinking on counterinsurgency, or was it, as some suggest, merely a military doctrinal manual, a small slice of a larger intellectual pie focused on tactical advice to soldiers and the conflict in Iraq? According to this view, it would be unjust to impugn counterinsurgency more broadly based on perceived deficiencies in the manual, and those who take issue with COIN might best participate in the manual's revision, rather than throw rocks from the sidelines.
Yet if FM 3-24 was just a doctrinal manual, it was also undeniably unique in many ways. It was certainly the first military doctrine to be unveiled with such fanfare, including appearances by the drafting team in various media outlets to herald the manual's arrival. One could be forgiven for seeing a larger enterprise in a University of Chicago edition, which featured an introduction that seems to range far beyond the document's nominal, tactical, remit. FM 3-24 arguably played an important role in the bureaucratic and domestic politics associated with the decision to surge in Iraq, and it seems hard to dispute that various personalities and Washington think tanks linked to the document played a major role in U.S. policy deliberations over both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a truism that military doctrine is not strategy. But what if, in this case, a doctrine became a strategy, as critics have argued?
As FM 3-24 is revised, it seems a good moment to have a larger debate about the interactive effects of doctrine and strategy, real or prospective. Is COIN per se the right manual, or should it be written as part of a broader document that addresses other forms of internal conflict? Does the mere existence of a manual inevitably create a "moral hazard" effect, lulling policymakers into a false confidence about what is possible? Might it provide incentives for policymakers and strategists to "name" a conflict according to the manuals that are available, rather than the facts on the ground? To what extent should a doctrinal manual take account of the risk of its misuse?
3. History and Statecraft
Counterinsurgency also raises critically important questions about the uses of history. The basis of counterinsurgency is a set of particular historical cases, most notably the British in Malaya, the French in Algeria, and the U.S. in Vietnam, and to a lesser extent the British experience in Northern Ireland and imperial policing operations in the U.K.'s former dominions. These cases raise two different, but related questions: 1. What happened?; and 2. How do we use what happened? Despite the rather blithe use of these historical analogies in many discussions about COIN, both of these questions are highly contested by scholars.
While Malaya is widely considered the perfect case study of counterinsurgency principles (at least as articulated in FM 3-24), a new generation of scholars, such as British historian Karl Hack, has begun to challenge popular understandings of what happened there, including the much discussed "hearts and minds" approach. Scholars are also examining the other case studies of COIN in critical ways and developing new, much more nuanced, understandings of those histories.
But the second part of the question is how we use those cases, and this connects to a larger and long-standing debate about the uses of history for policymaking. At Harvard, the late Ernest May and Richard Neustadt spent decades examining the uses of history and warning against the perils of simplistic historical analogies in developing and/or justifying policy. Francis J. Gavin and James Steinberg recently offered a wise and thoughtful refresher on this subject, reminding us that history's "lessons" can be as often misleading as helpful.
But this question has received surprisingly little attention in the COIN debate. Despite the certainty with which COIN advocates have offered historical models, it is not at all obvious or well demonstrated that the classic case studies of COIN are applicable to modern American warfare. Imagine that we conducted the very simple exercise, suggested by May and Neustadt, to test the applicability of an historical analogy: Divide a sheet of paper in half, and on the left side write down the similarities between Iraq and, say, Malaya. On the right side, write down the differences. Would the left side really be more robust than the right? And even if the relevance of historical cases seems plausible at first blush, surely the evidentiary burden lies with those who argue for the use of the analogy. In the field of counterinsurgency, there has been surprisingly little deep scholarship that would even begin to meet this burden.
4. What Really Happened in Iraq, and Why? What of COIN in Afghanistan?
Inextricably woven into the previous three sets of questions is the U.S. experience in Iraq during and after the Surge, which, for some, offers the most recent, and most potent, case study in successful COIN. According to this view, COIN, as described by FM 3-24, was taken to Iraq in 2007, implemented there, and violence declined. What better evidence of COIN's utility than our own experience but a few years ago?
But there are serious and unresolved questions about what really happened in Iraq, and both sides of the argument have suffered from an absence of evidence. It has been hard to prove that the Surge (and its alleged accompanying COIN techniques) worked, but also hard to demonstrate that it did not, and both sides have plausible, but unproven, explanations for the observed outcomes. In an upcoming article in International Security, Stephen Biddle, Jeffrey Friedman, and Jacob Shapiro use recently declassified data on violence to explore various competing arguments about the Surge. Without spoiling the surprise, their answer is that the story is complicated, and reveals the limits of several sides of the argument.
The Iraq question leads us irretrievably to a discussion about how counterinsurgency ideas featured in later policy -- and results -- in Afghanistan. Here there are also important, unanswered questions that scholars must tackle in coming years. Was the problem that COIN was never fully implemented in Afghanistan, as some argue? Or did the U.S. try, and fail, at counterinsurgency there, as others would have it? Beyond the facts on the ground there is also an important, and insufficiently understood, history of how interpretations of the Iraq experience affected the thinking of military and civilian senior leaders in policy on Afghanistan, for good or for ill.
If indeed COL Killebrew is right that counterinsurgency is here to stay, then so long as we are sending young men and women into danger to undertake such conflicts, it is imperative that we get it right, or as right as we can. We are obligated not to sit back, be quiet, and declare the debate over, but instead work diligently to fill the serious intellectual gaps in this fascinating and critical subject that has had such a profound impact on American policy and real lives on the battlefield.
The North Koreans don't care much for democracy, but they sure enjoy negotiating with democracies in an election year -- especially when they detect that mission number one in Washington is to avoid troubling foreign policy headlines until after November 6. The Obama administration actually started out with a pretty tough stance on North Korea, captured in an impressive statement of policy issued by Hillary Clinton while in Thailand in July 2009. By about mid-2011, however, the administration began getting nervous that its lack of "engagement" might tempt Pyongyang to conduct nuclear or missile tests. Once again, engagement slipped from being a marginally useful means to the end of the policy in itself. After a flurry of negotiations the North agreed in the February 29 "Leap Year" deal that it would stop nuclear and missile tests for a while and let IAEA inspectors back at the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for food aid (now euphemistically called "nutritional assistance"). Nobody in the administration was convinced this was a breakthrough, but it seemed to kick the North Korea problem down the road for a while. Problem solved.
Well, not quite. Within days of the agreement evidence mounted that the North might go ahead with a missile test anyway. The White House rushed off a high level delegation to Pyongyang in early March to warn that a test would scuttle the food aid deal. That "secret" mission soon became widely known because of clearance requests made for the plane across the U.S., Korean and Japanese governments. It did not matter anyway, since the North Koreans ignored the White House entreaties and went ahead with their ballistic missile test a few days later.
It was obvious to a number of us (see my previous posts) that North Korea intended to test missile and nuclear weapons in 2012 under almost any circumstances. I said as much to colleagues in the administration and warned that we were pinning too much on this agreement, which I did not oppose, but did not think would hold for very long. Hopeful North Korea watchers in and out of government acknowledged any agreement with the North is tenuous at best, but seemed genuinely perplexed that Pyongyang would violate this one so quickly. It makes sense, though. A series of negotiations had yielded the outlines of an agreement with the North in December that probably would have been announced that month if Kim Jong Il had not died suddenly. By March, IAEA inspectors would have been on the ground in Yongbyon investigating the North's showcase uranium enrichment facility. After a test would the international community have supported U.S. sanctions that would have forced the inspectors out? Kim Jong Un is new at the job and went with the original plan anyway -- cut the deal and then test. It just turned out that the gap between deal and no deal was shortened.
We should know by now that the main point for North Korea is developing the missile and nuclear capability; not the diplomatic agreements. Within months of its last two missile tests, Pyongyang tested nuclear devices. Sure enough, last week the North changed the preamble of its constitution to declare itself a full nuclear weapons state (as promised for years but dismissed a feint by hopeful observers). A third nuclear test within 2012 seems likely. If it is a higher plutonium yield (the last one was about 4-5 kilotons), that is bad. If it is a successful test of a uranium-based device, that is worse.
The administration is now entirely in reactive mode. They went for a lesser Presidential Statement (PRST) from the UNSC in response to the missile launch so that they would have their one North Korea UNSC Resolution bullet ready for a nuclear test when that comes. That gives the president a talking point after the next test, but it is not clear what else. Beijing, which had supported some slightly tougher language in the PRST, is now to calling on all parties to be restrained and return to the February 29 agreement.
A proactive strategy to deal with the North Korean nuclear problem would have looked entirely different. Instead of (or perhaps in addition to) attempting to "engage" the North Koreans out of conducting a test, the administration could have done any number of things, including: supporting South Korean and Japanese requests to go to the UNSC to pressure Pyongyang before the launch; pressing China to actually implement sanctions under UNSC 1874 by spotlighting Chinese firms in violation (like the one that sold the North the mobile missile TEL that was paraded in the streets of Pyongyang recently); working with friends and allies to inspect any ships that have docked in North Korea in the previous 120 days (hundreds of such ships are estimated to pull into South Korean ports alone each year); cracking down on North Korean uses of "flags of convenience;" maintaining spending on missile defenses; keeping a more open mind on South Korean requests to extend their own surface-to-surface missile ranges so they can counterstrike deeper into North Korea...and the list goes on. None of these are radical proposals in light of North Korea's obvious intent to keep developing nuclear weapons and the means of delivery. Yet I doubt the administration will do even half of these in response to another North Korean nuclear test. I do not fault the administration for talking to the North, but talk is cheap if it isn't backed by muscle.
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How should the next president refine American Grand Strategy? That is the subject of a report released today by the Center for New American Security (CNAS). CNAS herded a bunch of us cats (including yours truly) in the hopes of starting a cat fight. You can judge for yourself, or come see the fur fly in person at the CNAS Annual Conference on June 13.
As I read the report, there is greater overlap among the competing perspectives than one might expect (perhaps even more than the CNAS cat-herders expected). Dick Betts calls for the greatest amount of change from the status quo grand strategy, but I wonder if that isn't because he pegs the status quo to somewhere around January 2003, at the high-water mark of what he would consider to be wrong-headed American military interventionist impulses. I call for the least amount of change to the status quo strategy, but that is because I consider the second-term Bush grand strategy, which Obama has largely tried to implement (whilst rhetorically repudiating), to be a reasonable exemplar of a post-Cold War approach that has been more successful than not. Bob Art has his own take, which I consider to be fairly compatible with what I call the "legacy grand strategy." And Anne-Marie Slaughter emphasizes the prevalence of networks, which, she argues, requires a fundamental rethink of grand strategy. I think she is right about the importance of networks, and I am all for a rethink of grand strategy. After doing that rethink, I end up more comfortable with the strategy that has hitherto guided us than she is, but I think the differences are a matter of nuance.
I am willing to bet that my FP colleagues who also blog on grand strategy from time to time will agree with me on this narrow point -- that the CNAS group has a lot more in common than in dispute -- even if they disagree profoundly with my own preferred strategy. Since the CNAS group does not include a true-believer in "off-shore balancing," or other such more-radical alternative retreats from American global leadership, it will be interesting to read a substantive critique-and-proposal along those lines.
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A growing chorus in Washington seems convinced that those of us who served in the George W. Bush administration oversold the benefits of the U.S.-India strategic partnership forged from 2005 to 2008. The centerpiece of that partnership was the bilateral defense agreement of 2005 and a civilian-nuclear agreement ratified by both countries' parliaments and blessed by the international community in 2008. Many critics are drawn from the non-proliferation community that largely opposed the civ-nuke deal because of India's original sin of developing nuclear weapons outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- to which India is not a signatory -- and even though it has a clean proliferation record. Their case has legs today less because they were right about the civ-nuke deal -- they were not -- than because the Obama administration has presided over a period of drift in Indo-U.S. relations that has been matched by drift in Delhi on India's reform agenda. The result has been a benign sense of disappointment in each country, despite the compelling structural and ideational logic that continues to push the relationship forward.
Several of us recently debated the question of whether U.S.-India relations were "oversold" at the American Enterprise Institute. Today's Financial Times charges that U.S.-India relations are "wilting" in light of various policy spats between the two countries that belie the mutual optimism of 2008. These claims need to be put in perspective. This is the first of several posts that will try to take the long view by highlighting how extraordinary the transformation of U.S.-India relations actually has been in light of their complicated history -- and why the U.S. strategic bet on India, and India's on America, remains smart policy for the long term, despite short-term disappointments.
Recall the context in which U.S. and Indian officials, nearly 15 years ago, sought to forge a new relationship. For half a century, the American and Indian governments were alienated by India's refusal to sign on as one of Washington's Cold War allies; by the U.S. military alliance with Indian rival Pakistan, forged in 1954; and later by America's tacit alliance with Indian rival China, countered by India's tacit alliance with Moscow. Following wars with both Pakistan and China, India launched a covert nuclear weapons program, leading the United States to muster its allies to impose sweeping sanctions on technology trade with India -- further stifling its development after state socialism had already undercut India's growth potential. Even after the Cold War, Washington and New Delhi spent the 1990s feuding over proliferation, culminating in the imposition of even more U.S. sanctions following India's1998 nuclear weapons test.
It was Indian, not American, leaders who then suggested that India and the United States should break from a half-century of discord to transform their relations for a new era. According to its leaders, India had tested nuclear weapons in response to existential threats from China and the ally it had helped to develop nuclear weapons, Pakistan. India was the world's largest democracy, and its people had friendly views towards the United States. Converging threat perceptions and common values meant that India and the United States were in fact "natural allies," according to then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. They should forge a partnership to manage the dangers of the 21st century and to amplify the strengths of the world's biggest open and pluralistic societies. President Clinton's unprecedented support for India over Pakistan in their near-war of 1999, followed by his 2000 trip to India in which he echoed Vajpayee's call for an alliance of interests and values, made possible the breakthroughs that came later.
India's change of administrations in 2004 did not change New Delhi's support for developing a new partnership with the United States. Nonetheless, Bush administration officials who worked with both Indian governments faced a stark challenge. Not only did the Indian and U.S. bureaucracies have no tradition of working together, but the international sanctions regime the United States had put in place following India's 1974 "peaceful" nuclear explosion remained in place. Then-State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow called this legacy the "Gordian knot" which statesmen in Washington and New Delhi somehow had to untie in order to forge an enduring foundation for a transformed partnership.
The answer was the 2005 U.S.-India civilian nuclear cooperation agreement. Under its terms, India would separate its civilian and its military nuclear reactors, submit the former to international monitoring, make a series of binding commitments not to proliferate nuclear materials or technologies, and in return secure the support of the U.S.-led international cartel governing trade in civilian nuclear components for India's access to these materials on the international market. The judgment of not just the Bush administration but of the United States Congress, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Nuclear Suppliers' Group was that the nuclear non-proliferation regime would be stronger if India were a part of it on these terms -- rather than remaining excluded and untethered as a nuclear weapons state not bound by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
For all the attention garnered by the civilian-nuclear agreement, the first long-term partnership agreement between Washington and New Delhi was actually a 10-year defense cooperation agreement signed in June 2005. Most countries without a long history of partnership begin their engagement with trade and diplomatic agreements and only after building trust move on to military cooperation. The opposite held true between the United States and India, in part because of the compelling security threats -- from China, Pakistan, and terrorism -- that drew them together. The defense agreement was a particularly radical step for India to take -- having allied with the United States' primary competitor during the Cold War and condemned America's military primacy in the international system throughout the 1990s, Indian leaders decided by the mid-2000s that the United States was the partner of choice in helping to modernize the Indian military and supply the needs of the world' biggest arms importer.
The success of U.S. and Indian policy from 1998-2008 lay in creating a transformed basis for relations between the world's largest democracies for the new century. The United States would secure not an ally but an independent partner that could help anchor an Asian balance of power otherwise at risk from growing Chinese strength. Washington would be able to point to India's model of democratic development as an alternative to the "Beijing consensus" of authoritarian development that otherwise might appeal to swathes of the developing world. The complementarities between America's hi-tech economy and India's rich human capital would spur growth in both countries. India would secure as a sponsor for its rise and development the international system's predominant power. This seemed like a good bargain from the vantage point of 2008. It remains one today, despite the fact that both India and America have disappointed each other on several key issues over the past three years. These will be the subject of my next post.
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In truth much as I searched, I have found that the Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics actually has no analogue in foreign policy. Regardless, it is a good way to describe Obama's foreign policy doctrine. Call it the Uncertainty Doctrine.
Businesspeople and economists make a good case that the uncertainty of Obama's domestic policies has slowed the economic recovery. The private sector does not know when and for what they will next be taxed or regulated, what the new health care law visited upon them means for the economy. The anxiety causes a freeze in economic growth.
So too with Obama's uncertainty foreign policy doctrine. Allies and adversaries have no idea what we will do next and are acting accordingly.
Obama announced a troop surge in Afghanistan and then immediately a pull out date. Should our allies stick with us as we take out just enough bad guys to make the Taliban more vengeful when they return? Or instead should Kabul just make deals with the Taliban? An Iranian nuclear weapon is unacceptable but so is Israel removing one from the hands of Iran. Assad must go, but we will not do anything to make that happen. On the other hand maybe its best if he just stayed -- easier to work with than the alternative.
China was a partner in global action problems -- perhaps even a G2 was in the offing! Together we would work on climate change, nonproliferation, who knows what else? Now the United States needs to pivot to Asia to keep China in check.
Here is another part of the uncertainty doctrine that must leave Europeans and Middle Easterners scratching their heads: The United States is pivoting to Asia (under fiscal constraint) but not abandoning its allies in Europe or the Middle East.
The pivot, we tell the Chinese, is not about them. But then Manila and Tokyo ask: "What do you mean the pivot isn't about China. The Chinese are unwelcome visitors into our waters at least once a week!"
Oh, and we have new battle plan called "Air Sea Battle" that again is not about China. However, it is meant to operate in "anti-access" environments -- those in which enemies have many missiles, submarines, and cyber warfare capabilities. Sounds like China. We will be able to operate again in those environments once the plan is executed, but we will not execute it because we are cutting the defense budget, so China should worry a bit but not too much. Our allies should have just a little dose of reassurance to go along with their fears.
India is a strategic partner whom we would like to join us in checking (or not checking?) China but we are going to leave Afghanistan for India to fight over with its archrival Pakistan.
I think the point is made. Just as uncertainty in economic policy can make an economy sputter, so too has Obama's uncertainty doctrine made the world a more dangerous place. With no one else to do the chores, the United States must lead with certainty. The rest of the world may complain about our arrogance, but that is better than complaining about utter chaos.
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BRUSSELS – For supporters of the war in Afghanistan, recent news has been depressing. Here in Brussels at NATO headquarters, where I've been observing the so-called "jumbo" ministerial of NATO defense and foreign ministers, officials were forced to address the Haqqani network's brazen attacks in several Afghan cities, including Kabul, over the weekend, as well as photographs published by the Los Angeles Times of U.S. Army soldiers posing with the body parts of suicide bombers in 2010.
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Here we go again.
President Obama has reportedly asked for military options in Syria, including "humanitarian airlifts, naval monitoring of Syria and the establishment of a no-fly zone, among other possibilities," according to the New York Times.
If the Syrian people are morally justified in fighting against their own government, then it is permissible (though not necessarily prudent) for the United States and other international actors to come to their aid. That is why the United States is and should be at least rhetorically and diplomatically on the side of the protesters and rebels. Further assistance might take the form of humanitarian assistance and money, with training and weapons a next step. But should it include a U.S. military deployment?
It's a hard case to make. Just because the Syrians have a just cause doesn't make it our fight. It becomes our fight if intervening in Syria a) would further U.S. national security interests, b) at an acceptable cost, c) with a reasonable chance of creating a situation in Syria better than the present one.
We certainly have a greater national security stake in Syria than we did in Libya, but is it enough to justify an intervention? Here's the best case I can make: we are fighting a 30-year Cold War against Iran, and anything we can do to contain and limit Iran's influence is good. Toppling the regime in Syria eliminates Iran's main regional ally and a major transit route for weapons and Hezbollah. Therefore, we should take advantage of the unique opportunity that the Syrian uprising affords us and make regime change in Damascus official U.S. policy. Fellow Shadow Government contributor John Hannah made a similar argument last year.
For the sake of argument, let's assume that's a sufficiently vital interest; I'll revisit it in a little bit. We still have to ask if an intervention is achievable and cost-effective. Here the argument for intervention becomes even harder. There is no international coalition supporting an intervention in Syria, making it harder to assure the Syrians of the benevolence of any intervention. The split in Syria is alarmingly along sectarian lines, suggesting there would be little chance of forming a national unity government after the fall of Assad and risking a replay of the 2006-7 Iraqi civil war. The nature of the fighting in Syria makes an outside intervention harder: rebels control no territory, a no-fly zone would be simply irrelevant, a no-drive zone would be tantamount to invasion.
Furthermore, Obama showed in Libya that he is willing to topple a regime and then walk away, leaving the hard work of peacebuilding to others and casting serious doubt on the future of post-Qaddafi Libya. That precedent bodes ill for a post-Assad Syria. Additionally, the domestic political pressure to reduce U.S. spending makes it hard for Obama, or any American policymaker, to push for the kind of large-scale reconstruction and stabilization assistance that a post-war Syrian would need. In short, there is a sadly low probability that we could overthrow Assad, replace him with something better, and avoid chaos.
More broadly, I doubt that we have the kind of political will necessary to make an intervention of this sort effective. I admit this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy (the more we write about how little political will we have, the less political will we have). I especially hate it when this kind of argument is leveled against the intervention in Afghanistan, a place where we have demonstrated astonishing political will for more than a decade. And I dislike the argument because it implies a defeatist, pessimistic take on American capabilities. I tend to agree with Robert Kagan that the stories of our decline and fall are greatly exaggerated.
Nonetheless, some realistic pessimism is appropriate in this particular case. Does anyone think the Obama administration, or the American foreign policy establishment generally, has what it takes to do a Syrian intervention right? I want to believe that we can do this because it is almost a textbook-perfect case of where our interests and our ideals have aligned with rare harmony. But if I, the last champion of nation-building, am skeptical, is anyone else going to believe it is possible?
Now let's return to our interests at stake in Syria. Our involvement in Syria would essentially be a proxy fight in our broader campaign against Iran. But there is a danger in choosing to make Syria a battlefield. We might sink time, money, troops, and energy into regime change in Syrian; meanwhile, Iran successfully completes and weaponizes the nuclear cycle. Syria would be a pyrrhic victory. We run the risk of confusing a sideshow with the main event. The main event is Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Will intervening in Syria prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? Who is an intervention most likely to slow down: Iran, or the United States?
Given the difficulty of doing a Syrian intervention right and the fact that it is not the primary U.S. interest in the region, I am not currently persuaded that an intervention would be good U.S. policy. (I know it is heretical to say that anything that happens in the Middle East is not absolutely vital to American interests. But I am increasingly convinced that this particular emperor is naked.) That may change if, for example, the Syrian uprising demonstrates much greater capacity and unity, if the international community begins to coalesce around an anti-Assad position, or if Assad himself starts to look for a way out, the achievement of which should be the focus our diplomatic strategy. Until then, masterly inactivity might be our best military strategy.
Meanwhile, take a moment to reflect: Syria is precisely the sort of mission we should be able to do, but Obama's decision that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations" effectively takes it off the table. The fact that we lack the capacity and the will to act when it would be both in our own self-interest and in defense of humanitarian ideals is one of the most damning things that can be said about Obama's defense strategy. That he is now asking for military options for Syria suggests he knows it.
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In my last post, I argued that evaluating progress in our war with al Qaeda is possible, but that we must first answer a series of questions, beginning with "What is al Qaeda?" In this post, I'll look at the second issue -- the problem of al Qaeda's objectives in their war. Only by understanding what the group aspires to achieve can we determine if they have succeeded in attaining their goals or not. As with the issue of defining al Qaeda, there are a variety of opinions within the expert community and the government about the group's strategic vision, a term that includes both objectives and plans for achieving them. Consistently, however, the U.S. government -- including both the Bush and Obama administrations -- has concluded that carrying out terrorist attacks on the U.S. and our allies is the key objective for "core" al Qaeda, while the affiliates are focused on local agendas (although they now also desire to carry out attacks on the U.S.).
There are, however, hints in official U.S. statements of quite a different set of objectives for the group. The declassified part of an April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), for instance, asserts that al Qaeda's political goal is an "ultra-conservative interpretation of sharia-based governance spanning the Muslim world." In 2010, an official statement for the record of then-DNI Dennis Blair, listed the objectives for al Qaeda, besides attacking the U.S. and its allies, as "driving Western influence from Islamic lands" and "facilitating the establishment of sharia law in South Asia." A speech by John Brennan in 2011 gives a detailed look at how the U.S. defines al Qaeda's goals, proposing four separate objectives: first, to terrorize the U.S. into retreating from the world stage; second, to use long wars to financially bleed the U.S. while inflaming anti-American sentiment; third, to defend the rights of Muslims; and finally, claims al Qaeda has "a feckless delusion" and "grandiose vision" for global domination through a "violent Islamic caliphate."
A look at the public and private statements of al Qaeda's leaders supports the view that the group seeks to achieve far more than simply attacking the U.S. and its allies. In multiple statements, leaders like Zawahiri have consistently presented a series of objectives that al Qaeda is actively pursuing: liberating all "Muslim lands" from occupation by both non-Muslims and "apostate" rulers; imposing their version of sharia (Islamic law) on Muslims and non-Muslims alike in these lands; erecting then a state that they call the "caliphate;" and eventually making God's word the highest. This phrase, which means many things to Muslims, signifies just one thing for the extremists: that the entire world is ruled by their version of sharia.
It is significant that al Qaeda's lists of objectives do not mention attacking the United States or its allies. Rather, attacking the U.S. is presented as a way to achieve these goals, suggesting that U.S. evaluations of al Qaeda's effectiveness have a serious error at their very foundation: a confusion of our enemy's means and ends. The importance of this mistake cannot be understated. If al Qaeda's main goal is to attack the U.S. and our current counter-terrorism (CT) efforts have prevented the group from doing so, then we have succeeded not only in saving lives, but also have found how to stop the terrorists entirely. If, on the other hand, killing Americans was just one of the methods that al Qaeda has been employing on its way to other, larger goals, then our CT work might have only partially thwarted the group and there might be other areas where they have been more successful in reaching their goals.
In my next post, I'll take a look at the objectives that al Qaeda has said that it is pursuing, and attempt to bring some clarity to the question of how well the group has been doing in achieving them.
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Yesterday the United States and North Korea issued separate and conflicting statements regarding a way forward in the Six Party Talks. While this should come as no surprise, the most notable policy change is the administration's willingness to move forward with 240,000 metric tons of food assistance to North Korea.
Linking humanitarian assistance to progress or even the resumption of six party talks is a bad precedent and until recently the Obama administration and the State Department have never stated this new position publicly. Many would say that this would be an attempt to bribe the North Koreans to the table taking advantage of a dire humanitarian situation.
During the Bush administration the U.S. and other six party member states agreed to provide assistance in the form of Heavy Fuel Oil as a condition for North Korea to halt its nuclear activities and missile tests. While this created some controversy, there was no link to the humanitarian needs of North Korea.
Until now, the United States has always assessed the delivery of humanitarian assistance on the basis of need, not politics. This is not to say that we blindly give assistance to rogue governments. The U.S. Agency for International Development is well versed in navigating this sensitive subject. Experienced teams will put conditions on humanitarian aid, taking extraordinary steps to assure what commodities are needed most and what areas of a country have been most affected. USAID will then elaborate on how it can best respond to humanitarian emergencies.
The Obama administration has been assessing the food situation in North Korea and deliberating on what to do for almost a year. This delay and the statements released by both governments will fuel speculation that the Obama administration decided to wait until now and use humanitarian assistance as leverage on Kim Jong-un's new regime to get them back to the negotiations table.
There were signs earlier this week when, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, linked humanitarian food assistance to the stalled six party talks aimed at North Korea's de-nuclearization.
Admiral Willard said, "In terms of these negotiations that have been ongoing, I have been supportive of them, with regard to the United States' proposals for conditional food aid into North Korea and the preconditions that have come with it, which now include discussions of cessation of nuclearization and ballistic missile testing."
I experienced the reality of negotiating with the North Koreans firsthand in late 2007 and early 2008 on three trips to Pyongyang as the lead American negotiator with the North Korean government over the terms for resuming food aid where each of these meetings was chaired by First Vice Minister, Kim Kye-gwan. These discussions were done entirely separate from the six party negotiations.
The United States reached an agreement with North Korea to provide up to 500,000 metric tons of food under a significantly improved framework ensuring food would reach the North Korean people who needed it most.
This agreement remedied past problems of the regime diverting humanitarian food shipments to the military or for black market revenues. The North Koreans agreed to improved access at all stages of the food distribution apparatus, to allow random assessments, and, for the first time, permit American and U.N. World Food Program workers fluent in Korean to work in-country to oversee the distribution process, assess needs in different locations, and review distribution lists.
This program came to an abrupt halt in March 2009 with the expulsion of U.S. NGOs who were in-country monitoring the distribution shortly before the regime conducted another round of nuclear tests and long-range missiles.
The subject of food assistance should have been brought up separately during the meeting between the United States and North Korea. First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan is well versed in both sides of these negotiations as noted by North Korea's claim that the U.S. has "promised" to offer 240,000 metric tons of food assistance with the prospect of increasing the amount.
What will the Obama administration do when North Korea breaks its promises yet again and humanitarian assistance is now linked directly to the six party talks? One wonders if there was ever a clear strategy within the administration in its attempt to bring the North Koreans back to the negotiating table.
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I imagine the Obama administration may be wondering whether or not to release another edition of the National Security Strategy (NSS). They released Obama's first (and so far only) one in May 2010. Although the law mandating the NSS calls for annual updates, at the time it looked like the administration might follow the George W. Bush precedent of releasing just one per term.
The one-per-term standard makes sense for a number of reasons. First, we shouldn't expect the overall national security strategy of the country to change on an annual basis. Second, producing a quality document takes a surprising amount of work; better to invest those resources in monitoring the implementation of the old one than in finding ways to repackage old wine in new wine skins. Third, as an administration creeps closer to the silly season of campaigning, the temptation to turn the document into a brag-sheet rather than a serious articulation of the administration's worldview becomes irresistible. Whether or not you agreed with the content of the arguments, Clinton's first NSS and both of Bush's were more substantial and thus more consequential documents than the later ones produced by the Clinton administration.
However, I would not be surprised to learn that a new version is under consideration. Doubtless the campaign temptation is pulling mightily on the Obama team. President Obama will be the first Democratic incumbent in decades -- maybe since Roosevelt -- to have reason to believe that his bragging rights on national security are stronger than they are on domestic policy and the economy. When the applause lines are louder on national security than they are on the economy, it is easy to predict that the candidate will proffer the former more often than the latter (insert late night comic riff about Giuliani mentioning 9/11 here). Whether or not they can produce a document at least as serious as their first one, let alone on par with earlier ones is tougher to predict. Campaign-induced distortions will be a big challenge.
Yet there is one good reason why they should release another version in the current term -- perhaps good enough to overcome all of my other caveats. A few weeks ago, President Obama released a much-ballyhooed "new strategic guidance" and the administration went to considerable lengths to emphasize the boldness and novelty of what they were doing. The commentariat responded in kind -- a Google search of "Obama strategic pivot" produces some 1,200,000 hits.
If it really is so new and so bold, it raises the obvious question: is it new and bold enough to require changes in the (now) old NSS, from which, in theory, such defense guidance is supposed to emanate?
On the other hand, if the new strategic guidance does not require a change in the NSS, how bold and new can it be?
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.