The psychological impact of a major foreign-policy move is generally felt right away even if the kinetic impact takes much longer. The tyrannical trio of geography, bureaucracy, and logistics means that even the most powerful leader in the world (the U.S. president) must wait -- sometimes many months -- before the actions he has ordered physically take effect. The psychological effects start much sooner, however, and so some of the benefit of a policy change can be realized in advance of the kinetics.
In a well-designed strategy, the psychological and kinetic effects work in tandem with the former multiplying the latter, perhaps even operating during the delay between decision/announcement and full implementation. In a poorly designed strategy, the psychological and kinetic effects are in tension, perhaps even canceling each other out.
This is Strategy 101, but it is often ignored when an administration is severely cross-pressured. I fear that is happening to Barack Obama's administration right now as it struggles to implement its recent change in policy regarding providing small arms to the Syrian rebels.
The president made his momentous decision last week, but even if the modest aid he has promised could be decisive in a kinetic sense, it will be some time before the arms actually arrive to change battle facts on the ground. Days after the White House announcement, Gen. Salim Idris, the military leader who will supposedly receive the help, was reported to be saying that he had not yet even been contacted about the aid. And nonlethal aid promised many months ago still has not been delivered, according to FP's The Cable.
These delays are not necessarily the product of bureaucratic foot-dragging. The delay in making the policy decision may well have been the result of foot-dragging from a bureaucracy and political administration reluctant to intervene, but implementation delays are just as often dictated by physics as by politics. It just takes time to get things done.
In the meantime, what is operating is any change in expectations that the decision engendered, perhaps resulting in a changed strategic calculus among the key actors. That is explicitly what the Obama administration is hoping for, since it has said that the new lethal aid is meant to send a signal of U.S. (and international) resolve to Bashar al-Assad's regime that the regime and its allies should heed.
Is that the likely psychological effect of the president's decision? Will Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran conclude from the decision to supply some small arms, which will arrive to influence tactical operations at some future date, that it marks a major commitment on the part of the United States? Judging from the way the administration made the announcement -- leaving it to the National Security Council's communications director to announce while the president was at a local photo-op -- most observers, including those quite sympathetic to the administration or to the policy of greater involvement in Syria, have inferred a message of irresolution and uncertain commitment.
In short, the immediate psychological effects may well be undercutting rather than magnifying the eventual kinetic effects.
This is not the first time the Obama administration has run afoul of good strategic principles. Obama's Afghanistan surge was a textbook case of getting the psychology and the kinetics out of sync. The announcement of the artificial timeline for withdrawing the surge at the same time as announcing the surge itself meant that for the first several months the chief effect of the new policy was confusion about American resolve. The kinetic benefits of the additional troops were delayed many months as the military logistics chain slowly swung into action. I gather that the Obama White House was frustrated by the slow pace of delivering the surge troops -- doubly so since the delay came on the heels of months of delay during the strategic review itself -- but it was no more of a kinetic delay than that which beset the Iraq surge. The difference was that the psychological benefits of the Iraq surge kicked in right away because the Iraq surge strategy was well-designed and the two elements were synchronized. (One wonders whether Obama would have opted for the self-defeating arbitrary timeline in Afghanistan if he had fully understood how long it would take for the kinetic results to take effect.)
I fear the administration is making the same mistake again. And whereas the Afghanistan surge was at least in kinetic terms so substantial that it had a decent hope of overcoming the damage done by the imposition of the arbitrary timeline, the kinetic effect of the change in Syria policy is far less substantial. It will take a lot of hope for this change to produce a better outcome -- and there is very little time for it to do so.
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Editor's Note: This guest post is the first in a series of three posts about the changing face of American foreign policy. They are based on ideas explored in a new book by Kim R. Holmes titled Rebound: Getting America Back to Great, to be published in November. Holmes served in George W. Bush's administration as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs and is now a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
For decades Americans have been deeply divided over foreign policy. Since the Vietnam War they have argued over everything from wars to nuclear weapons to the purposes of foreign aid. However, today changes are afoot. Conservatives like Sen. Rand Paul join liberals in denouncing the surveillance policies of the National Security Agency. "Neoconservative" Sen. John McCain condemns Paul as an "isolationist" and embraces liberal Samantha Power's appointment as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Spending on defense, once the sacred cow of national security conservatives, is dropping rapidly as a result of a bipartisan deal on sequestration.
Something new is going on here. Old battle lines are being redrawn as Americans deal with the challenges of a new world. It may be possible, for the first time in a very long time, to review fundamentally the country's foreign policy. If not a realignment of views, then at least a new look at U.S. foreign policy may be possible.
Until recently we had roughly three ways of looking at America's role in the world. As worldviews they have dominated the way U.S. foreign policy has been debated and even made. Let's take a look at them briefly before we examine how they are changing.
The first of these I call "pull back" -- as in significantly downsizing America's presence abroad. The main premise is that American foreign policy is too militaristic and overly involved in trying to control events overseas, particularly with military force. In academia, proponents include such people as Barry Posen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago, and Andrew Bacevich at Boston University. In the political world its supporters range from Rep. Barney Frank on the left to Ron Paul on the right, and some libertarians. Think tanks likewise break down in this fashion, with the Center for American Progress on the left and the Cato Institute on the right. Their critics tend to label them as "isolationists," but in reality they don't want to withdraw completely from the world, but only to scale down dramatically America's military activities overseas.
The second framework can be called "retrenchment." This most closely resembles the foreign policy of President Barack Obama, who pays lip service to international idealism but who in practice is pragmatic and quite inward looking. The dominant theme is that American power is increasingly limited and must adjust with less interventionism and a smaller military footprint overseas. As the president said in a January interview with the New Republic, "I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations." There is a rhetorical commitment to traditional American engagement and, in the war on terrorism, even a hawkish streak of unilateralism. However, in practice the main focus is domestic policy, or as Obama put it, to concentrate on "nation-building here at home."
A third is that of the conservative hawks. Sometimes called neoconservatives, they are the interventionists who believe that American power is being tested all over the world and any failure to respond sends a signal of weakness that adversaries will exploit. They possess a heavy streak of moralism, which is often deployed to justify military interventions. The Syrian civil war, for example, is decried as both a strategic threat to American interests and an offense to Americans' moral sensibilities. Adherents include many officials who served in George W. Bush's administration, some scholars at the American Enterprise Institute; opinion writers at the Weekly Standard, academics such Fouad Ajami of the Hoover Institution, and Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations. Their main political protagonists today are Senator McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham.
I fully realize these categories are not all-inclusive. Scholars, experts, and even politicians have nuanced views that are impossible to pigeonhole. Moreover, some may disagree with my characterization of their views. However, my purpose is not to establish ironclad "schools of thought" but rather to provide a framework to explore how some of the views held by people in these groups are migrating, as it were, ideologically. Because of changing public opinion about wars and national security in general, the neatness of these categories is fraying at the edges, allowing for some rather unusual ideological bedfellows.
I will explore how this is happening in the next installment in this series. As we will see, these categories are fraying at the edges. It is not easy anymore to tell exactly who is liberal or conservative in foreign policy. Because of this there may be a chance for if not a full realignment of views -- that is probably not in the cards -- at least a "new look" that could present some interesting possibilities.
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Many debates about policy debates are at their core debates about theology. Even people who would not consider themselves very religious often have an implicit set of assumptions about human nature, a divine will, and spiritual values that shape human rights and obligations, policy preferences, and convictions. This is especially true in the United States, as the nation has a long and rich history of public theology, exemplified by figures as diverse as the Founders, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King Jr., Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and most recently President Barack Obama.
In foreign policy, this policy-as-theology debate was on display at last week's Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in the speeches by Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Marco Rubio. The differences were especially notable given that Paul and Rubio both cited the same biblical passage (the Sermon on the Mount) and both focused on the issue of international religious freedom. Yet they used different interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount to advance contrasting visions of America's role in the world.
Paul spoke eloquently about the plight of persecuted Christians overseas, a woefully neglected issue. But his only suggested policy response was to cut off U.S. foreign aid to any country where Christians are targeted. This may have a certain emotive appeal, but it is completely ineffective in dealing with many nations where the persecution of Christians is severest, like Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, North Korea, Sudan, and Eritrea -- none of which receive development aid from the United States. He made no mention of any other policy measures or initiatives to combat religious persecution in nations where the United States doesn't have the (limited) leverage of foreign aid.
I can recall no utterance of Jesus in favor of war or any acts of aggression. In fact, his message to his disciples was one of nonresistance. I do not believe that means that we don't defend ourselves.… I simply can't imagine Jesus at the head of any army of soldiers.… Jesus, himself, reminds us of this in the Sermon on the Mount, when he proclaims, "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God."
This no doubt reflects Paul's policy convictions, but it is poor scriptural exegesis. First, it obscures the important distinction between Jesus's exclusively messianic mission and the various roles of Christian citizens (e.g., Jesus didn't run for political office either, but that doesn't mean that Paul as a professing Christian is wrong to hold office). Second, it disregards the biblical distinction between individual conduct and the mandated role of government to "wield the sword" (see Romans 12:9-13:8) that is a cornerstone of the Christian just-war tradition. Politically, Paul's speech was also curious, as it reflects the Social Gospel theological liberalism of the early 20th century that is historically anathema to the Christian conservatives of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. In short, with these hints of pacifism and isolation, Paul sounds in theological terms like a 21st-century Harry Emerson Fosdick.
Rubio also invoked the Sermon on the Mount in his call for American Christians to be involved in the world. Rubio's chosen passage was Matthew 5: 13-16 (just four verses after the one Paul cited):
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
This passage embodies an enduring theme in American history. From its invocation in 1630 by Puritan leader John Winthrop in his famous sermon, the "city upon a hill" motif has been cited by American presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Reagan as a model for the nation's role in the world. Rubio, however, concentrated his remarks on the less-cited passage about the salt of the earth and derived from it the imperative for Christians to play a "preservative" role in the world. He specifically applied it to the issue of religious persecution and urged American foreign policy to be more vigorous in promoting human rights and liberty abroad.
I am sure that both Paul and Rubio are equally sincere and equally fervent in their concern about religious persecution. But both as a matter of hermeneutics and of policy, I find Rubio's remarks more compelling. Just in the case of persecuted religious minorities alone, effective policies to promote religious liberty will entail active American involvement and the full suite of diplomatic tools, as Rubio implies but Paul avoids. Although Rubio's speech occasionally glossed over the distinction between biblical admonitions to individual Christians and conduct by the nation-state, overall he offered a more theologically coherent and convincing case for American leadership in a turbulent world. At a time when the nation suffers understandable fatigue and faces growing domestic pressures for retrenchment, this is a welcome reminder that many others in the world still look to the United States to play a distinctive role.
Photo by Wolfgang Moroder/Wikimedia Commons/Fresco by Franz Xaver Kirchebner in the parish church of Ortisei, Italy
We are to arm the rebels in Syria. So sayeth the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications yesterday. The Obama administration has satisfied itself the intelligence is reliable that the Assad government did in several instances use chemical weapons against its own population. President Obama set a red line, Bashar al-Assad crossed it, and now American credibility is at stake, so the administration must finally do something.
It's bad policy to go to war to preserve American credibility -- much less any particular president's credibility. As a general rule, if you have to fight a duel to defend a lady's honor, she's probably already compromised it. And -- much as we bridle to hear it -- in the eyes of much of the world, American credibility is always in doubt. Even in the canonical cases, it looks much different to others: Europeans recall how much of World War II we sat out, as well as our eventual joining. We are an unpredictable ally, even an unreliable one to many of our partners.
Moreover, the argument has something of a domino theory feel to it: We must defend American credibility here, otherwise we won't have it over there. It brings to mind the scene in the anti-war movie Gallipoli in which two young soldiers are explaining World War I to a hobo in the Australian outback. "If we don't stop the Kaiser in Europe, he could get all this," the soldier explains as the camera pans around hundreds of unpopulated miles in every direction.
America should go to war only when the war itself merits it. If we need credibility for managing the Iranian nuclear program, we're going to have to earn it on the basis of countering the Iranian nuclear program. If the atrocities of the Syrian government against its own people, the provocations for a wider regional war, deepening sectarian divide across the Middle East, and tottering of American allies under the weight of refugees demands credible policies, we are not going to bluff our way to changing the Assad government's behavior because we've done what we said we would do elsewhere.
Syria does merit going to war. Bashar al-Assad is a butcher, a major supporter of terrorism, a threat to our allies and our interests in the Middle East. That Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia are keeping him in power argues for, not against, U.S. intervention. The Syrian opposition is fractious and increasingly beholden to jihadists; the longer this conflict drags on, the more fractious rebels will become and the most beholden they will be to the forces that are assisting their fight.
The White House may resent being pulled into the conflict, but that is a problem of the president's own making. He declared that Assad must go. He set the red line on chemical weapons use. As with so much else in Obama administration foreign policy, they are tripped up on the conflict between their lofty statements of intent and their unwillingness to act.
In announcing the new policy, the deputy national security advisor said that in light of Assad's forces having crossed President Obama's "red line" against using chemical weapons, we would commence providing military assistance to the Syrian rebels. "Suffice it to say this is going to be different in both scope and scale," Rhodes said of the new assistance. But he did not say what that new scope and scale of assistance would entail. He did say what it would not entail: enactment of a no-fly zone or involvement of U.S. troops. Others in the administration tell journalists the lethal assistance will consist of small arms and ammunition.
Before Hezbollah fighters joined in on the regime side, most analysts considered the major regime advantage to be airborne firepower. The regime has heavy weapons and the rebels do not; it has been sufficient to create a stalemate. As the war dragged on, jihadists flowed into rebel ranks, improving their fighting power, and arms flowed into regime stockpiles, improving their firepower. As the fall of Qusayr shows, the regime is gaining ground.
Rhodes said our arms shipments would be "responsive to the needs" expressed by the rebel command. General Idriss, in charge of the rebel forces, has openly and repeatedly requested anti-tank missiles and shoulder-fired rockets to shoot down the aircraft that the Assad regime is using against civilians. The rebels have also requested a no-fly zone to level the fighting field. The Obama administration will be responsive to their needs by providing small arms and ammunition. So, in fact, the rebels' needs have very little to do with the assistance the Obama administration has decided to provide.
The Obama administration continues to labor under the illusion that bold statements are an adequate deterrent. They have -- again -- made a hortatory commitment and will allow time to lag before determining whether to proceed with doing anything. They have -- again -- made the choice to do just enough to keep the rebels fighting, but not enough to help them win. Suffice it to say, this policy will once again be too little too late. And the American credibility it is designed to bolster will be further degraded.
DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images
American officials like to say that Iran's defiance of international demands that it limit its nuclear activities, its support for terrorism, and the like have led to Tehran's growing isolation. Iranian regime officials see things differently. The Iranian regime has a strategy in the Middle East and believes it is succeeding.
Nowhere in the Middle East is Iran's strategy clearer at the moment than in Syria. Recently, Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, the military advisor to Iran's supreme leader, asserted that Syria is a "confrontation between the strategic policies of the world's great powers and regional powers," with Iran and its foreign allies on one side, and the United States and its regional allies on the other, per a translation by the American Enterprise Institute.
In explaining why Iran is engaged in this confrontation, Safavi noted that "Iran has pursued power and influence out to the Mediterranean three times." Two of these instances, in Safavi's recounting, occurred during the reigns of ancient Iranian kings. The third, however, was the present. He explained that Iran currently uses Hezbollah as "the long arm of Iranian defensive power … to confront a possible Zionist attack against Iran's nuclear energy facilities."
Safavi also explained how successful Iranian approaches to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to Syria, have made Iran a "regional power" in defiance of Western efforts to thwart its ambitions.
It would be easy to dismiss Safavi's claims as bluster. They are certainly selective: Ordinary Iranians are unlikely to find much comfort in his claimed foreign-policy successes while they struggle with rising inflation and unemployment at home. As hyperbolic as his claims may be, however, they are echoed by other Iranian officials and provide a useful guide to understanding Iranian actions and formulating an approach to the region.
Western officials and analysts have a tendency to artificially isolate one problem in the Middle East from another, treating Iran's nuclear program and the Syrian crisis, for example, as distinct problems to be dealt with independently.
This can lead to clouded analysis and false policy choices. For example, some argue that the United States should avoid involvement in Syria to ensure that resources are available to deal with Iran. In reality, both Iran's activities in Syria and its nuclear ambitions are part of a broader Iranian strategy to project power, enhance its regional influence, and constrain the United States and its regional allies.
Likewise, many analysts were surprised by Hezbollah's open admission of its deep involvement in Syria, because they viewed the group as primarily a Lebanese political party or as engaged in fighting Israel. While both of these are true, they neglect that Hezbollah is more fundamentally a group created to project Iranian power into the Levant, a mission with which its Syrian venture -- as well as its activities in Iraq during the last decade -- is perfectly compatible.
Western officials' inattention to this broader picture has real strategic consequences for U.S. interests. No matter how much American policymakers stress that the "military option" is on the table with respect to Iran's nuclear program, Washington's failure to push back on Iranian aggression in Syria, and the European Union's reluctance to penalize Hezbollah for its actions, undercut the credibility of Western warnings. Whatever the view of the West, for Tehran these issues, as well as the West's responses to them, are inextricably connected.
And not just for Tehran -- America's allies in the region also see U.S. actions in different theaters as linked, and they view with alarm Washington's passivity in the region. Consequently, American influence is everywhere diminished as friends and foes alike increasingly factor Washington out of policy decisions, and the force of America's allies collectively is reduced as each pursues policies independently not just of the United States but, to a great extent, of one another.
Once lost, influence is costly to regain, which gives rise to a vicious cycle. Re-establishing U.S. influence and credibility requires actions that, as crises deepen and multiply, become costlier as time passes, which reinforces the argument against taking them. Nowhere is this more evident than in Syria.
Costly interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have soured U.S. officials on further entanglement in the Middle East. But disengaging from the region will only add to the costs of those wars, not compensate for them.
One lesson we must learn from those conflicts, however, is to have clear objectives and to pursue them economically. When it comes to Iran, the objective has never been and should not become merely limiting Iranian nuclear activities, but disrupting the strategy of which both the nuclear program and Syria, as well as Iran's asymmetric actions, are parts. A non-nuclear Iran emboldened by victory in Syria remains dangerous.
The economical way to begin countering Iran's strategy is not to wait for a last-resort strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, or worse yet to continue offering Iran nuclear concessions in hopes it will bite; rather, it is to press Iran in a place like Syria, where it is far from home and perhaps overextended.
Defeating Iranian designs in Syria will not halt Tehran's nuclear ambitions, but it may restore in the eyes of Iranian and allied officials alike the credibility of American power, and force Tehran to reconsider the costs of its strategy. For Iran, Major General Safavi reminds us, has a strategy in the Middle East; the United States must as well.
An interesting argument has emerged in recent years about the future direction of U.S. foreign policy after Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of it focuses on how interventionist the United States should be. This is an unhelpful way to frame a foreign-policy discussion.
For example, columnist Ross Douthat favorably notes the rise of "populist libertarians" who are, among other things, "more anti-interventionist abroad." Stephen Walt regularly criticizes what he calls "liberal imperialism" by policymakers on both sides of the aisle whom he sees as too fond of intervening in other states.
In these commentaries and others, "intervention" is not a useful organizing concept for a foreign policy. Foreign policy must encompass a vast range of ideas and issues -- from great-power rivalry to international trade, transnational terrorism, environmental treaties, and more -- that are not related in any way to intervention.
Nor is it clear what "intervention" really means. If it means "land invasion followed by regime change and a protracted reconstruction and stabilization mission," then the argument focuses on something the United States very rarely undertakes anyway. It is true that it did so twice in recent memory, but the simultaneous missions in Iraq and Afghanistan were highly exceptional and are unlikely to be replicated elsewhere anytime soon. In short, those interventions were historically unique.
But if "intervention" means anything more than the definition above, it is too broad a concept to have much meaning at all. Policymakers who oppose large peacekeeping interventions may support smaller training missions. Those who oppose humanitarian intervention may be strongly in favor of counterdrug, counterterrorism, and counterpiracy operations. The blanket categories of pro- and anti-intervention fail to capture these nuances.
Furthermore, proponents of an intervention (in Syria, say) are not necessarily in favor of every possible intervention. Some might have opposed the war in Iraq but supported the one in Afghanistan. Others may have opposed the bombing campaign against Serbia but supported the one in Libya. Proponents of a given intervention are unlikely to describe their overall foreign-policy stance as "pro-intervention." They are more likely to frame it in terms of the interest that an intervention purportedly serves, such as humanitarian aid, counterproliferation, or regional stability. Arguing about "intervention" as an abstract concept serves little purpose.
A more useful debate would address if, when, why, and how to intervene in other states and how a given approach should fit into broader U.S. strategic goals. Under this framework, the argument on the "anti-intervention" end of the spectrum would be that intervention rarely, if ever, serves U.S. interests and thus should almost never be undertaken.
There are several weaknesses to this position. For example, proponents do not have a consistent view about how to intervene in the rare cases in which that action is justified. Some might argue for the smallest and quickest intervention required to effect change, followed by a rapid withdrawal. Others might argue that once an intervention is started, it is best to go in with overwhelming force to guarantee success.
In any case, under the force of its overriding stance -- "don't intervene" -- it fails to recognize any conditions under which an intervention could usefully contribute to U.S. national security goals.
A more productive position would recognize that intervention -- here understood more broadly -- can serve U.S. national security interests. This small concession prompts coherent answers to questions of how, when, and why to intervene. Interventions should be undertaken when U.S. interests are at stake with an intervening force tailored to achieve specific objectives.
In helpfully reframing the discussion about intervention, this position also would push the discussion toward broader, more important questions: What are U.S. interests? How do we define them? What threatens them? How can they be secured? These are the questions around which a meaningful debate on the future of foreign policy should be conducted.
Sometimes intervening in other states might be the best means for securing U.S. interests; sometimes not. But defining those interests will foster more meaningful debate about foreign policy, and these are the debates that will shape the country's policy future.
Paul Miller is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rand Corp.
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Facing a series of significant foreign policy challenges, the Obama administration appears to be responding with an array of diplomatic initiatives built around negotiations. Thus, the White House hopes to convene a diplomatic conference on the Syrian war in Geneva , and to launch a dialogue with China on cybersecurity, both to take place in July. Meanwhile, the administration still hopes to resume yet another round of negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program.
The problem in each of these cases is not that the Obama administration is following a diplomatic track. The problem is that the White House and State Department seem to be pursuing negotiations from a posture of weakness, and are not taking the needful steps to strengthen their negotiating hand. Diplomacy always takes place in the context of facts on the ground, and in each of these cases America's adversaries are doing a better job of creating facts on the ground more favorable to their positions. Meanwhile, perhaps seduced by the false dichotomy of thinking that diplomacy is always an alternative to the use of force rather than often a complement to force, the Obama administration may be setting up its various diplomatic gambits for failure.
Take Syria. While Secretary Kerry is begging and cajoling various parties to agree to attend the peace conference, in the war itself the Assad regime's patrons such as Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are helping Damascus regain the battlefield initiative against the rebels through substantial weapons upgrades and territorial advances. Even if the Geneva gathering does take place next month, it will occur in circumstances far more favorable to Assad and his backers - and will consequently be far less likely to lead to Assad's departure and any viable settlement.
In the case of China, the White House in recent weeks has at last begun publicly speaking out against China's state-sponsored hacking of American military and commercial targets, but the only real action in response seems to be a call for dialogue because, in the words of a senior administration official "we need to develop some norms and rules." Well, yes, developing norms and rules would be nice, but the immediate issue is much simpler: the Chinese government needs to stop stealing technology from American companies, and needs to stop engaging in low-grade acts of cyberwar against the American military. China will continue this cyberwarfare as long as it can do so without any consequences - and a diplomatic dialogue or even "sternly-worded demarche" from the State Department do not count as consequences. Especially since Beijing has proven very artful at using dialogues as diversionary tactics to resist taking concrete policy steps, with the episodic U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue being just one example (an especially sad reminder of the failures of U.S. human rights policy as this week marks the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre).
Iran, meanwhile, is starting to resemble "Groundhog Day," with Tehran pursuing a salami slicing strategy of incrementally advancing its nuclear program while sporadically coming back to the negotiating table. Here at least the US diplomatic strategy has included coercive instruments such as economic sanctions and other measures. But as Mike Singh and others have repeatedly pointed out, missing has been a credible, unambiguous threat from the U.S. of the use of force. It is just such a credible threat that would, ironically, reduce the likelihood of war by showing the Iranian regime that a diplomatic solution is their best and only option.
Looking at history, many previous negotiations succeeded because of the strong hand the U.S. wielded. Nixon and Kissinger used the Linebacker bombing campaigns to strengthen the American position in the Paris peace talks that ended the Vietnam War. Reagan's diplomatic outreaches to Gorbachev took place amidst America's enhanced military posture, development of the Strategic Defense Initiative that drove the Russians nuts, and pressure on the Soviet periphery through support for insurgents in places like Afghanistan. The Clinton administration had a strong hand to play in negotiating the Dayton Accords thanks to Operation Deliberate Force.
In contrast, the Obama administration has dealt itself a weak hand in its various diplomatic initiatives. This is not at all to say that diplomacy should be abandoned, but rather that the White House should look for ways to approach negotiations with incentives for the other side to change its behavior. In Syria, this could mean steps like arming the rebels or imposing no-fly zones. With China, it could mean engaging in some retaliatory cyber-measures against Unit 61398 (one hopes this is already being done?), so that when Chinese officials sit down for the dialogue they will do so knowing that refusing to cooperate will carry costs. In the case of Iran, the regime needs to know that its choices are a negotiated settlement or the destruction of its nuclear program.
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The president's speech at the National Defense University was most unsatisfying for anyone hoping that at long last Obama would articulate what his purpose is in being commander-in-chief while terrorists continue their efforts to kill and maim Americans and our allies.
Both Peter Feaver (here) and Tom Mahnken (here) have offered incisive comments and I don't intend to belabor their excellent points other than to note that I think this speech is a defining moment in a way for which the administration was not hoping. Rather than turn a page and finally say what he believes and what he will pursue about the greatest challenge we face today, the president muddied the waters so much that clarity in his final term now seems impossible. The speech -- long-planned and expected by supporters and critics alike -- demonstrates that the administration's policy is incoherent because it sends two different messages.
On the one hand, after largely keeping in place the Bush policies designed to prosecute a global war on terror, Obama now says we cannot pursue terrorists everywhere in an unlimited fashion -- implying that that is what George W. Bush did -- and so he is also implying that the global war on terror is over because it was never a realistic approach. But on the other hand, he acknowledges that terrorists are still hatching their plots and working their will all over the world, and so we must combat them and he will do so. He can't have it both ways. If terrorists still operate, and they do, and he said so (even if he suggests inaccurately that al Qaeda is on the wane), and if they still operate all over the world and here at home, and they do, and he said so, then we are in a global war on terror. He should say so. To say otherwise is absurd.
Adding to the confusion is the president's announcement at NDU of policy changes he will seek: reducing the incidence of drone strikes and closing Guantanamo. It is hard to believe that suddenly the drone strikes are no longer useful when they have essentially been this administration's signature policy in fighting terror. And it is hard to believe that trying to close a secure prison that allows for interrogations when you still have no detailed plan that can pass muster with Congress is a serious policy. But maybe these new policies are motivated more by a desire to improve on his and the U.S. popularity ratings around the world that are currently lower than in the Bush era.
I do not say the administration is incompetent; I have worked with a number of them over the years in government, and so have we all at Shadow Government. But being smart and well-credentialed does not necessarily mean one will produce rational and coherent foreign policy. To do that, the head policymaker must eschew politics and have clear and precise goals; he must have a well-thought-out vision and mission of what is to be achieved. And he must formulate and articulate a strategy that puts money and other resources into the effort. The president has never done these things seriously and much less as a package. He's only made it worse with a speech that sends a confused message: The global war on terror is over but we will keep fighting terrorists who are active all over the globe.
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Now, I'm no Medea Benjamin, but I had several strong reactions to President Obama's speech at the National Defense University Thursday.
First, as expected, Obama used the platform to criticize the Bush administration. Quite frankly, however, I've gotten so used to that trope that I almost don't pay attention to it anymore. But in criticizing America's conduct of its conflict with al Qaeda and its affiliates, the president was also critiquing his own performance over the last four plus years. Listening to Obama's speech, one cannot help but ask, "What were you doing over the past four years? Wasn't it you who greatly expanded the scope and intensity of drone strikes during your first term?" Obama has hardly been a passive bystander as this drama has unfolded. The drone strike program was inaugurated by the Bush administration, but it has reached its zenith under Obama.
Which leads to my second observation: Obama's speech was almost entirely about tactics. Indeed, Obama has presided over what my late friend and colleague Michael Handel termed the "tacticization of strategy." Obama and his team have used a tactic -- strikes on terrorists launched from unmanned air vehicles -- as a substitute for the development and implementation of a comprehensive strategy. The same is true of the administration's attitude toward interrogation and detention.
Third, in seeking to define the conflict more tightly, he actually muddied the waters. Obama's call for limiting the use of force to al Qaeda and its affiliates is sensible. Indeed, I don't know of anyone from the previous administration who would argue with that notion. The difficulty has always involved determining the criteria for affiliation with al Qaeda. Is it individuals or groups who have sworn an oath of fealty of al Qaeda central? Is it groups that share al Qaeda's vision of violent jihad? Is it individuals who are inspired by al Qaeda's preaching?
Obama appears to have difficulty with this himself. Consider the following paragraph from his speech:
And finally, we face a real threat from radicalized individuals here in the United States. Whether it's a shooter at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a plane flying into a building in Texas, or the extremists who killed 168 people at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, America has confronted many forms of violent extremism in our history. Deranged or alienated individuals -- often U.S. citizens or legal residents -- can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad. And that pull towards extremism appears to have led to the shooting at Fort Hood and the bombing of the Boston Marathon.
So Timothy McVeigh was a "violent extremist", whereas violent extremism "appears to have led to" Major Nidal Hassan's murderous rampage? The use of the passive voice in the latter case is telling.
We can -- and should -- debate how strong and how centralized al Qaeda is. Such a debate is crucial to understanding the nature of our adversary and the kind of war upon which we are embarked and thus to developing an effective strategy. Furthermore, scholars would be aided in this debate if they had access to more of the documents seized from Osama bin Laden's house in Pakistan. Only seventeen have so far been released, and the president quoted from another yesterday. Would the thousands of documents that remain classified corroborate the president's view of how we are doing? One wonders.
Fourth, and most importantly, just as President Bush was criticized for declaring a premature end to the 2003 Iraq War, Obama may very well be criticized for declaring an end to the war on terror.
It takes two to end a war. Indeed, it is the defeated party that determines when a war is over, because he holds the power to continue it. In the present instance, it is less than clear that al Qaeda's leadership believes that it is defeated. Al Qaeda and its affiliates are if anything gaining new footholds in North Africa, West Africa, and Syria.
Obama's NDU speech may thus prove to be his own "mission accomplished" moment. I hope that I am wrong but fear that I am right.
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Yesterday's speech is one that President Obama has evidently wanted to give for some time. For several years now, there appears to have been an internal debate over whether and how to reframe the war on terror. One camp, call them the optimists, have wanted to declare the equivalent of "mission accomplished," with al Qaeda strategically defeated and the remaining terror threats relegated to a second or third-tier concern. The other camp, call them the pessimists, have warned that such a declaration would be premature because operational successes against some aspects of the terror network (e.g. the killing of bin Laden and numerous al Qaeda operational commanders) have been undermined by strategic setbacks in other areas (e.g. the emergence of new safe havens in North Africa, the unraveling of security in Iraq, the spiraling chaos in Syria that has re-energized both Sunni and Shia terrorist groups, and so on).
Politically, declaring mission accomplished is a tantalizing risk. On the one hand, it is clear that Obama partisans are keen to wring maximum political benefit from the good fortune of killing bin Laden on their watch. The boast that they have "won" the "good" war that Bush started (the war on terror) and "ended" the "bad" war (Iraq) would, if true, cement Obama's national security legacy. On the other hand, just as Bush paid a huge price for standing in front of a "mission accomplished" banner when the conflict in Iraq was anything but over, Obama would be at great risk if terrorists successfully struck after he had made the boast.
Shortly after the bin Laden raid, the Obama administration floated some "mission accomplished" trial balloons, with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta suggesting that al Qaeda was near strategic defeat. As the presidential election campaign heated up in the summer of 2012, it looked as if the administration was considering a bolder declaration. If that is right, I bet they are glad they resisted the temptation because the Benghazi terror attacks were hard enough for the administration to spin as it was. It would have been a much more daunting task if the attacks came on the heels of a "mission accomplished" speech.
Perhaps that is why, when he finally gave it after the Benghazi terror attack and after the Boston terror attack, the president's speech was so rhetorically unsatisfying. It sounded as if the president was personally and publicly wrestling with the tantalizing risk and never fully resolving where he came down. It seemed to be a compromise forged from two separate speeches, one drafted by the optimists and the other by the pessimists. Perhaps it was a sufficiently artful compromise to win one 24-hour news cycle, but that is probably its high water mark. The administration got some of the headlines it wanted -- the Washington Post highlighted the notion of the United States at "a ‘crossroads'" in the war on terror, and the New York Times called the speech a "pivot," perhaps enough to give the impression that there is a fundamental shift underway. But, in fact, as the president was at pains to admit in the speech, the threat remains and requires on-going extraordinary efforts, including efforts associated with war and not mere law enforcement.
And so it does. As Max Boot notes, the details laid out in Obama's speech mostly take us back to the de facto policy he inherited from President George W. Bush -- policies which have stood him in pretty good stead and made possible even having an internal debate about whether to declare the war on terror, or some crucial phase of it, over.
In news terms, the most important change appears to be a reduction in drone strikes from Obama-era levels back to Bush-era levels. Slowing down the pace of drone strikes is not a trivial change. For one thing, the drone strikes are deeply unpopular around the world, even -- and perhaps especially -- with our allies. They have become for Obama what "torture" was for the Bush administration and foreign discomfort with drone strikes is one important reason that the "soft power asset bubble" that Obama generated in his first few months in office has largely popped. So the evolution in drone policy is significant, but equally significant is that the president promised to continue to do drone strikes, as he deems necessary. The drone war has not ended.
The other "changes" are mostly hortatory appeals for Congress to change, coupled with rejections of the proposals coming from Congress on the subject.
The current phase in the war will indeed end when Gitmo is closed and when U.S. forces operate under a newly drafted authorization for the use of military force, two things the president called for without explaining how he could achieve it. Even then, however, the war will not be over, just entering a new phase. And if events on the ground in the Middle East continue to unfold along their current trajectory, that new phase may be every bit as daunting as the pessimists fear.
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All presidents make serious mistakes. Presidential leadership comes not from avoiding mistakes, but from having the humility, wisdom, and courage to correct those mistakes. There are growing signs that President Obama and his senior team are now realizing that they have seriously mishandled the Arab Awakening, even if they are still unsure what to do now -- and even if their negligence has rendered their choices now much more difficult.
Two and a half years in, Obama still has not developed a coherent strategy for the region. The problems began further back, in 2009, when Obama's dogmatic commitment to outreach to the Iranian regime clouded his ability to see the significant shift taking place among the Iranian people as the Green Movement suddenly emerged. The White House's subsequent passivity towards the Green Movement protests deprived the United States of leverage at the most meaningful moment of Ayatollah Khamenei's political vulnerability in recent years. Obama's Egypt policy has consisted of embracing the Muslim Brotherhood and neglecting non-Islamist Egyptians like liberals and Coptic Christians -- all while President Morsy drives the Egyptian economy over the cliff, though he still finds time to support fatwas against Easter. Obama may have won the war in Libya but is scandalizing the peace, as the Benghazi consulate attack and the chaos in Mali reveal.
Obama's Syria policy has consisted of just wishing it would go away. The humanitarian costs of over 80,000 dead are a grim rebuke to the White House's Atrocities Prevention Board. Instead, Anne Marie Slaughter and Walter Russell Mead have now taken to calling Syria "Obama's Rwanda," as was suggested here a few months ago.
For those not moved by principle to take action on Syria, American interests alone make it compelling. The region is being further destabilized with Iraq and Lebanon facing internal turmoil, and American allies Turkey and Israel feeling increasingly threatened -- the latter so much so that it has undertaken its own bombing campaign in Syria. Iran continues to rely on Syria as one of its main sources of leverage and influence in the region, just as Hezbollah relies on patronage from both Iran and Syria. Potentially worst of all, Syria's chemical weapons stores -- among the world's largest and deadliest -- are in very real danger of falling into the hands of extremist groups. That is what happens when the Assad regime opens its weapons depots and begins mixing and using them, thus dispersing the stocks, loosening command and control, and giving the extremists even more incentive to try to seize them -- and giving potential Syrian military defectors a deadly bargaining chip. Assad seems to be pursuing a salami slicing strategy of gradually employing more and more gruesome tactics. In this way he is perversely acclimating the outside world to his barbarity, while testing American resolve. Yet instead of meaningful action, we get a quote like this from a senior Obama advisor to the New York Times: "If he drops sarin on his own people, what's that got to do with us?"
Yes, he really said that. Aside from the moral callousness of that statement, its myopia is stunning. The possible use of sarin also means that that the stocks have been loosened, dispersed, and much more likely to fall into other hands. One would think that the very real prospect of chemical weapons being acquired by Islamist extremists who hate America would convince those few remaining voices still insisting that the U.S. has no national interests in the Syrian civil war to reconsider their blind faith.
Meanwhile, Obama's hands-off approach for the past two years has deprived the United States of any opportunity to 1) build ties with the opposition and shape its composition, 2) prevent the preponderance of the opposition from getting radicalized, 3) tip the scales of the conflict in the opposition's favor, and 4) shape the post-conflict political order, whatever it might be and whenever it might begin to emerge. Walter Mead sums this up well:
Given those goals, White House Syria policy from the beginning should have been to do everything possible (short of major direct American military involvement) to ensure a quick rebel win. The quicker the win, the less time international jihadis would have had to hijack the Syrian revolution, the less funding would have gone to radical groups, and the better the chances that post-war Syria would have been relatively calm. That's all lost now and we have paid and will pay a high price for the hesitation and dithering since war began.
Meanwhile, the strategic mistakes mount, with the most recent being Obama's rhetorical "red line" on the use of chemical weapons turning out to be only that -- rhetorical. Credibility is one of a president's, and a nation's, most precious assets. The "red line" is only the latest in a series of credibility-squandering utterances, following on Obama's repeated demands that Assad "must go," backed up by nothing policy-wise. The mismatch between Obama's words and actions is creating a credibility gap of Carter-esque proportions. Dictators from Tehran to Pyongyang are taking note.
One of the more memorable moments in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary came when then-Senator Hillary Clinton challenged also then-Senator Barack Obama over his allegedly jejune foreign policy credentials with the "3 a.m. phone call" advertisement about an urgent global crisis. Her question was pointed: Would the callow Obama know how to respond in the crucible?
Looking back over the five years since, I wonder if Clinton was right in her main point, just wrong in her timing. In this case, perhaps the mistake is not that the phone rang just once at 3:00 a.m. and that President Obama botched the call. Is it possible that historians will one day decide that the phone was ringing incessantly for two years, and yet President Obama failed to answer it?
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The debate about the Obama administration's lack of a Syria policy points to an overriding concern: the president's lack of a grand strategy for foreign policy. Indeed, as Israel takes the lead in Syria, I think the Obama administration may not even regard having a strategy as important.
As a candidate in 2008, Obama was forgiven in most quarters for not having a grand strategy. He was new to the national scene, and all the talk was about the economy. When he did talk about foreign policy, he said he'd get us out of Iraq, stabilize Afghanistan and then get out, pursue international agreements on climate change, talk more to our enemies through a series of "resets," and close Guantánamo, implying that the war on terror was ill-founded and no longer necessary. I suppose one can argue that getting us out of wars is a strategy, but to leave it at that assumes that the only threats we face are being bogged down in wars and that if we'd quit the international scene, all would be well. That is no grand strategy no matter what Ron Paul says.
As a candidate in 2012, President Obama had the good luck to be opposed by a man with no foreign policy experience and who did not articulate very well what he'd do on those issues, so the president just doubled down on the tactics of his first four years. Add to all that the voters' consistent lack of interest in foreign policy unless there is a crisis, and the president got to sidestep these issues for the most part.
But thoughtful observers and analysts wonder now in the fifth year of the Obama presidency what the he and his team intend to do about the myriad problems besetting the globe: wars, lower level conflicts, and a continuing terrorist threat that erupted again most visibly and most recently in Boston and Benghazi. Whether Obama is a realist or not has been discussed on this site (by Stephen Walt and by yours truly, among others), but trying to put a theoretical label on the president's foreign policy approach does not tell us what he is trying to accomplish and why. Calling him a realist, an idealist, or anything else does not tell us what to expect from him as commander in chief. It might tell us how he intends to accomplish goals, but we don't know what the goals are. After five years in office, we still have no grand strategy from the president. Comparing him to his predecessors reveals a stark deficit of strategic thinking and intentionality.
As grand strategists, some of Obama's predecessors were stellar, others mediocre, but all operated strategically. Truman, Ike, Nixon, and Ford sought to contain communism. Carter wanted to do that, too, but also focus on human rights. Reagan determined to defeat communism while ensuring that the United States remained and grew more prominent as a beacon of liberty, the last best hope of mankind. Bush 41 and Clinton's foreign policy was largely about managing the fall and transformation of the Soviet Union and its former satellites -- and they acted determinedly to make the United States the catalyst for a boom in international trade. But terrorism was a growing and deadly threat for Clinton and his policy regarding it looks more like a holding game than a well-thought out plan to defeat it.
Enter Bush 43, who stated very clearly and repeatedly that the mission of this presidency was first and foremost to keep the United States safe by defeating terrorists and ending their effort to shape global politics. Importantly, to achieve this aim he intended also for the United States to be more than a beacon of freedom, to do what Reagan did regarding Lech Walesa's Solidarity but to do it on steroids: support democrats all around the world with both moral and material support as a means to defeat terrorism and all other threats to the peace.
Agree or disagree with the policy, George W. Bush had one, and it amounted to a grand strategy. It was carefully crafted internally, and all agencies played a role in it -- especially the primary departments and agencies that conduct foreign policy, including the development agency USAID and foreign assistance programs in other departments. For eight years, and especially after the 2004 inaugural address and the articulation of the freedom agenda, the goals were announced, the means to achieve them were devised, and the resulting policies and programs were implemented. That is, the Bush administration pursued ideas, funding, and assessment mechanisms and did so using both an executive branch and a Capitol Hill strategy. A grand strategy, if you will. The Bush Center at the president's recently inaugurated library tells the story, at least in terms of what the public saw and experienced over eight years. President Bush's former staff can fill in many of the details of how it all was planned and enacted.
These comments are not meant to be political shots taken at the Obama administration by a former Bush official keen to score points. Truly, this is a worrisome situation that the United States faces. Not since we became a great power, and indeed a superpower, have we been led by a president who has no clear goals for securing the people and interests of the United States from the many manifest and latent threats. He stated in his 2012 campaign that al Qaeda is on the run (but it is not); he treats North Korea, Iran, Syria, and the larger Middle East as distractions from his domestic agenda to be paid attention to only when he absolutely has to (but these are existential threats to US allies and serious ones for us); and he has no agenda to expand trade (but we need it given the global economic situation). He and his team appear to be so focused on the domestic front and to not follow the path of securing U.S. interests that Bush put us on, that one can arguably conclude that not only doesn't he have a grand strategy, he doesn't want one.
As the leader of the free world, such an approach is not a valid option. We can discuss the economy as a national security matter all we want to, but that does not free the president from his duty to anticipate threats from abroad and devise a grand strategy, along with the Congress, to deal with them. We currently face rogue states that are building nuclear weapons and a Middle East in flames, threats that in their severity rival the Cold War. Perhaps these threats are worse because we are not dealing with what Jeanne Kirkpatrick called the steely-eyed realists in the Kremlin but fanatical regimes whose apocalyptic imaginings could well overtake their reason.
It is time for President Obama to do the job his predecessors did before him: trying to shape the world to fit our interests. I'd settle for a bad strategy; at least it would demonstrate the willingness and ability to have one.
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Over the past six months, China and the United States have experienced political transitions that allow the leaders of both countries to focus on bilateral relations free from the pressures of domestic political campaigns. With political maneuvering among China's elites for spots on the Standing Committee of the Politburo finally over, the country's leaders can return to the business of governing the world's largest population. In the United States, President Obama's reelection has been accompanied by the appointment of a new team of foreign policy managers. But rather than freeing up Washington and Beijing to cooperate more fulsomely, the domestic political frictions produced by the bilateral relationship are, like the structural tensions between the established power and its rising challenger, intensifying.
On the one hand, changes in President Obama's second-term cabinet mean that U.S.-China relations are being handled by a more dovish set of managers than those who drove the first-term "rebalance" towards Asia. Ironically, this kind of shift traditionally has led to more discord in U.S.-China relations than when American leaders were clear and consistent in their policies toward China -- hence Mao Zedong's famous assertion to President Nixon that "I like rightists" and the stability of U.S.-China relations over the course of the George W. Bush administration.
For instance, Secretary of State John Kerry indicated in his Senate confirmation hearing that he was not convinced of the need for the "increased military ramp-up" in Asia. Chinese observers reportedly believed that this signaled a diminishment of the U.S. commitment to the "pivot," which in their view ended when Hillary Clinton left Foggy Bottom. Kerry took his first foreign trip to the Middle East and seems to be spending most of his time trying to put in place a more credible strategy on Syria to replace the malign neglect that has characterized administration policy to date. Meanwhile, China is stepping up military coercion of neighbors who are U.S. friends and allies, most recently India.
Meanwhile, Leon Panetta, who had warned apocalyptically of the impact of sequester-related defense cuts on military readiness, has been replaced as secretary of defense by Chuck Hagel, who has maintained that the armed forces can absorb cuts of this magnitude. His comments have raised doubts about whether the United States will be able to resource its military rebalance from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific. Additionally, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is widely perceived to be more concerned with the politics of American foreign policy -- namely watching the president's back at home -- than with any grand strategic design abroad.
More broadly, however, American hopes that "engagement" of China through trade and membership in international institutions would turn it into a status quo power have faded. A new consensus has emerged among experts, officials, and many business executives that this is a fundamentally competitive relationship, encompassing everything from mercantilist Chinese trade practices to daily cyberattacks to China's buildup of offensive military power designed to target unique American vulnerabilities. Expectations that China would liberalize politically as a natural outgrowth of its economic success have given way to an understanding that China today is in many ways more politically repressive than it was in the 1980s -- even if Chinese people enjoy greater economic freedom than before.
In China, political maneuvering in the run-up to the once-in-a-decade leadership transition led leading candidates for politburo seats to cultivate ties to ranking officials of the People's Liberation Army, the domestic security services, and the giant state-owned enterprises that still dominate much of the Chinese economy. As a result, these illiberal forces have arguably grown in power and influence even as China has become more prosperous and its internal politics more competitive.
At the same time, no Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping has enjoyed a highly personalized form of authority. China since the 1990s has been run by an oligopoly of men on the Standing Committee of the Politburo who exercise rule-by-committee and undertake their own Game of Thrones-style factional intrigues -- as demonstrated vividly by the downfall of then-Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai in his messianic quest to join that elite circle. As the authority of individual Chinese leaders has eroded, the domestic Chinese constituencies that either desire or help create greater friction in U.S.-China relations -- those who stand to gain politically by appealing to nationalist passions or likely to access to more state resources by painting the United States as an enemy -- have grown in influence and authority.
As a result, structural forces pitting the dominant United States against its rising peer competitor are in some ways being intensified by domestic pressures in both Washington and Beijing to take a harder bilateral line. These structural forces are compounded by the region's geography, in which China's territorial claims bump up directly against allies the United States is pledged to defend. This raises the risk of military confrontation.
There are, however, powerful countervailing factors that mitigate the likelihood of all-out conflict. These include the deep interdependence of the American and Chinese economies. Given its export dependency, shallow financial markets, and questionable domestic resiliency, any conflict would likely bankrupt China first.
Indeed, we have seen in China's own history how external conflicts have often led to internal rebellion and even revolution -- a prospect its rulers fear more than any other. Any actual decision by China's leaders to engage in direct military conflict with the United States would be very likely to lead to the downfall of the Communist regime that has governed the country since 1949. This link between the regime's external and internal insecurities is an Achilles' heel that gives the United States and other democracies facing military pressure from China -- Japan over the Senkakus, India over parts of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh -- a potentially decisive strategic advantage.
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There are many ways that painful lessons from the Iraq war have been shaping or will come to shape Obama's Syria policy. Here are two I have not seen discussed much yet:
1. The public punishes policy failure even if it supported the policy initially. Bush's Iraq policies were very popular at the outset. Over time, however, the policies looked less and less successful, and by the darkest days of the war, it looked like the American mission might end in a fiasco. The downward policy trajectory contributed directly to a downward trajectory in public opinion. Yes, there were other reasons -- such as the failure to find WMD -- but the negative fortunes of the war were significant. The fact that large majorities of the public approved of the invasion at the outset did not protect the policy when the war turned south.
Obama faces precisely this risk on Syria. His current policy of not intervening decisively is popular enough -- the polls show at best modest support for military intervention if WMD has been used and at worst profound reluctance about shouldering additional burdens in the region. Obama, in his ambivalence, has the comfort of being aligned with the public today. But this is a cold comfort, since his policy is failing, every bit and perhaps more so than Bush's Iraq policy during the war's darkest days. Once the public concludes that Obama has failed in Syria, it will not matter much that they initially supported the policies that yielded this failure.
2. Doing the right thing belatedly can rescue the policy without restoring public support for the policy. President Bush turned around the Iraq War by authorizing the surge in 2007. This came late in the war but not too late to turn Iraq from a trajectory of failure to something much better. The surge not only reversed the situation in Iraq, it also changed the political reality at home. Iraq went from being a seething issue that was dominating the political stage to an issue largely devoid of political sting. By the time President Obama took office, the political pressure had been so drained from the Iraq issue that he had a virtual free hand to conduct Iraq policy as he saw fit, jettisoning campaign promises and rhetoric along the way. However, the surge came too late to change the public's overall estimation of the Iraq war. Today clear majorities deem it a mistake, not worth the cost -- and at best a "stalemate," not a "victory" (albeit it neither a "defeat"). Had the surge and its fruits come earlier in the course of the war when support for the war was higher, perhaps the surge would have been able to do more than simply take the political sting out of the war -- it might even have convinced more of the public to stick with their initial support.
Obama seems to be inching toward intervening more aggressively in Syria. At this point, the prospects for that intervention look bleak. But even if the supporters of this option are right, and it is not too late for American action to decisively shift U.S. Syria policy toward something less than a fiasco, it may be too late for the public to see Syria as a success and to credit President Obama accordingly.
Of course, President Obama, like President Bush before him, should do what is in the best interests of the country regardless of the impact on public opinion. But political White Houses do care about political consequences, and in that regard the lessons from Iraq are bleak.
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As Syria descends further into the maw of a sectarian civil war fueled by militant islamism -- and Iraq teeters on the brink of it -- the options for American foreign policy look increasingly grim. The core pillars of Obama's regional strategy have crumbled. The tides of war are not receding, and rather than ending wars "responsibly" so as to "pivot" to Asia, it looks increasingly clear our national interests in the region are in serious jeopardy.
Along the way, events in the Middle East have put in jeopardy one additional thing, one cherished by a certain class of foreign policy pundits: the appeal of "offshore balancing." Offshore balancing is the favored approach of academic realist theory and theorists who believe the United States has too often intervened militarily over the years.
Offshore balancing purports to offer a middle ground between pure isolationism, which pretends that the United States has no interests worth defending abroad, and the interventionism that has led the United States into costly military conflicts abroad. Offshore balancing involves defending U.S. interests through indirect means, such as providing arms to certain local partners who, it is hoped, will protect U.S. interests on our behalf, and by using other tools of influence to shape local behaviors.
As a general rule, American foreign policy practitioners have found offshore balancing an unreliable pillar around which to build a global strategy, but it is popular among academics like Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt.
In fact, it was reading some of Walt's posts separately critiquing efforts to buy influence in Afghanistan and proposals to arm the Syria rebels so as to avoid direct military intervention by the U.S. military that got me thinking again about the wide gulf between the appeal of offshore balancing among some academic theorists and its spotty record in real-world policy.
Perhaps unwittingly, Walt makes a strong case for why offshore balancing is unlikely to work well in protecting U.S. interests in these areas. Walt is unsparing in his critique of the alleged covert program to buy influence in Afghanistan, which he derides as "sleaze" and as a likely culprit in what he predicts will be failure in Afghanistan. Likewise, he argues that providing arms to Syrian rebels will not provide much influence over them, and so the United States should not go down that path. What Walt fails to do is reflect on how his critique of these policies leads logically to a deeper critique of offshore balancing -- for the very steps he is deriding as leading to failure are the core elements of any long-term offshore balancing approach to these challenges.
Maybe it is a bit unfair to treat Afghanistan as a case of offshore balancing. After all we have been "onshore" in force for over a decade now. However, even offshore balancers recognize the need for episodic military involvement, which is what distinguishes them from pure isolationists. An offshore balancing approach to Afghanistan would have been an extreme version of the light-footprint posture favored by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: massive punitive action followed by extensive efforts at buying influence among local warlords. This is precisely what John Mearsheimer at the time endorsed as a policy of "open wallets." Offshore balancers reject the costly heavy footprint approach of counterinsurgency because they believe the United States can more effectively achieve its objectives through a light footprint. Going forward, what else could the offshore balancing prescription for Afghanistan offer if not a reliance on bribery and diplomacy?
It is absolutely fair to label Obama's current Syria policy as an attempt at offshore balancing. The administration has been resolute in avoiding an on-shore commitment in Syria, even to the extent of revising its own red-lines regarding Syrian WMD, and President Obama doubled down on this in his press conference Tuesday. But how can the United States shape the local balance of power without intervening directly and without arming favored rebel factions? Apparently, according to Walt, it cannot, which means that offshore balancing is doing no better at advancing U.S. interests than on-shore involvement.
The failure of offshore balancing does not prove the wisdom of military intervention. Perhaps Syria and Afghanistan are hopeless cases and, if so, there is an argument for not squandering American resources in futile efforts.
But Walt's implicit critique of offshore balancing points the way to a fuller exploration of the strategy, one that would go well beyond this blogpost. If even academic proponents of offshore balancing mock its core components, is it any wonder that policymakers with real responsibility for results will be reluctant to rely on it alone?
Offshore balancing is no panacea, just as military intervention is no panacea. Yet when even proponents of offshore balancing denigrate the tools that the strategy requires, it may be time to rethink its basic premises.
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In his excellent critique of the critics of the Bush foreign policy legacy, Peter Feaver spotlighted Water Russell Mead's advice to Republicans to reflect "openly and honestly" on how the 43rd President forever corrupted the GOP's foreign policy credentials. Every time I hear this advice -- usually given by my Democratic friends in sorrow rather than anger -- I ask them when Democrats will reflect openly and honestly on how their own caricature of Bush foreign policy has distorted and crippled their party's capacity for strategic thought.
The fundamental flaw in President Obama's grand strategy lies in its origins -- a view of America's role in the world crafted as the mirror image of a self-satisfying political narrative about Bush. It was a worldview based on the projection of their critique of Bush onto the world and not on the fundamental dynamics of power and competition that actually exist in the international system. In the editorial pages of the New York Times, faculty lounges across the country, and the Phoenix Project on foreign policy in Washington, a hugely simplistic assessment of Bush foreign policy emerged between 2001 and 2008. American foreign policy, it was decided, had become unilateral and militaristic. Our standing in the world had collapsed (an assessment based on Western European polling and one that ignored repeated polls in Asia and Africa that showed the United States was considerably more popular at the end of the second Bush administration than the end of Clinton's time in the White House). We were not willing to talk to our adversaries, etc.,etc.
As a result, the Obama foreign policy doctrine that emerged was entirely process-oriented and based on each of these critiques. How could the United States stabilize relations with China? By cooperating on climate change, a supposedly win-win transnational theme neglected by Bush. How would the administration solve the dangerously revisionist policies of Iran and other members of the Axis of Evil? Through engagement and dialogue, an obvious tool not exploited by Bush. How would the problems of proliferation be addressed? Through a visionary speech in Prague on total nuclear disarmament, something anathema to Bush. How to handle human rights and democracy? Smarter to tone down naming and blaming so that we could reassure countries like China and Iran that we were no longer pursuing a dangerous neocon policy.
In bits and pieces realism and realists emerged triumphant in the first Obama term. Hillary Clinton's Asia policy stands out, as does the triumph of realists in the debate over the Nuclear Posture Review. But what is the Democratic foreign policy establishment's basic doctrine today? Absent the organizing principle that Bush was the root of our problems, there is no core doctrine. Of course, the critics said Bush had a doctrine ... so maybe it would be better not to have one of those after all.
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This week, the George W. Bush Presidential Center will be dedicated. It will be a fun reunion of people who served in the Bush administration -- those who helped advise, make, and implement the president's policies in a time of great consequence for American history.
The opening of the presidential library has coincided with dramatic events at home and abroad that have eerie echoes to the Bush-era -- a Boston terror attack that reminds people of the post-9/11 jitters, ricin-laced letters to politicians that remind people of similar anthrax attacks, and an unraveling sectarian civil war in the heart of the Middle East, complete with intelligence reports of WMD use, that reminds people of the bitter experience in Iraq.
All of these have occasioned a great deal of talk about the Bush era and renewed debate about the Bush legacy. The talk and debate is welcome, but sometimes it takes a curious turn.
Let me begin by emphasizing that I have a lot of respect for Mead. I assign some of his books to my students, I find his blog posts to be usually thoughtful, and I appreciate that he is not a predictable Johnny-one-note on foreign policy.
Yet, on balance, his contribution to the current wave of commentary on the Bush legacy seems to be more an example of what not to do than of what to do. He opened with a provocative post entitled "The GOP Needs to Talk About Bush: Part One," in which he claimed that Republicans need to, well, talk about Bush "openly and honestly."
Mead's rebuttal to Wehner consisted of two pillars:
First: claiming (falsely) that Wehner's argument was premised on the belief that Bush had done nothing wrong and that all bad things that happened on Bush's watch should be entirely blamed on others. But Wehner explicitly acknowledged important mistakes and he explicitly called for shared responsibility. Apparently, Mead saw no middle ground -- no via media, if you will -- between a claim on the one hand that all critiques of the Bush presidency are true and a reductio ad absurdum claim on the other that the Bush presidency was a "triumph, a sterling example of greatness, of competent benevolence mixed with wisdom almost divine..." Instead of productively exploring the middle ground, Mead derisively dismisses a caricatured version of Wehner, one entirely of Mead's fabrication.
Second: passionately arguing that any attempt to answer critiques of the Bush era plays into the hands of the Bush-haters and is backward-looking. Never mind that this Pillar directly and obviously contradicts Mead's first post, which, as you will recall, encouraged everyone to talk "openly and honestly" about the Bush era (i.e. to look backward with clear eyes so as to move forward). The only possible way to reconcile them is to believe that what Mead meant in his first post is something like this: "Republicans should embrace every criticism of Bush, no matter how wrong or illogical because to answer such criticisms is to play in the hands of the Bush-haters." Why would accepting bogus critiques of the past prepare us well to face the future?
What is curiously missing in Mead's response is any factual or logical engagement of Wehner's (or Inboden's, for that matter) actual argument. Perhaps Wehner or Inboden have over-claimed or misread the history. If so, I would like to see the facts and logic that make up that case.
I wonder if there are two Walter Russell Meads (that would explain why the Via Media refers to itself with the first person plural). There is the Mead who has written important books that are must-reads for any student of American foreign policy and who has offered thoughtful commentary on an impressively wide range of topics. That same Mead, in his "Part One," acknowledged that many Bush-haters distort the past in their critique. And then there is a second Mead, the one who trashed Wehner for engaging in the historical conversation Mead #1 claimed to want. If so, I hope Mead #1 will start debating Mead #2.
Of course, the problem is not really Mead, who, I would argue, will eventually be part of the solution. Compared to other pundits back in the day, he had something of a balanced view of the Bush administration as it unfolded. In fact, I would turn the frame upside down: if reasoned, fact-based discussions of the Bush Legacy cannot produce balanced and nuanced assessments from generally fair-minded observers like Mead, then I would despair of ever seeing it at all.
Happily, the truth is that, over time, we can see such appraisals emerging. Some scholars not blinkered by ideological opposition do produce more balanced assessments than what the conventional wisdom of the day, which is still overly shaped by the instant partisan commentary, would predict. Thus, Mel Leffler has a balanced account of the origins of the Iraq war, Stephen Biddle and his co-authors have a sophisticated analysis of the contributions of the Iraq surge, and Robert Jervis has a careful review of the intersection of intelligence failure and policy choice in Iraq.
None of these scholars can be dismissed as court sycophants. All would, on balance, come down more negatively on the Bush legacy as a whole than the typical Shadow Government contributor. Yet, like the typical Shadow Government contributor, each seems committed to letting the facts lead where they may, even if those facts will disrupt the settled caricatures of the conventional wisdom.
Some journalists are coming around, too. Ron Fournier has a thoughtful commentary that humanizes former President Bush. And maybe even the public is showing an openness to reconsidering previous opinions.
Therefore, I think Republicans should be willing to talk openly and honestly about the Bush era. That will involve accepting some critiques but rejecting others. That will require conceding some mistakes and explaining why the conventional wisdom is wrong in other respects. I do not think that should be the sole or principal preoccupation of Republicans, nor do I think we are in any danger of Republicans falling into that trap.
A worthy contribution of the new Bush center to the ongoing political dialogue in the country would be if it used its convening powers to conduct careful and detailed explorations of key decisions and policies from the Bush era. With the benefit of hindsight, such explorations may conclude that some decisions and policies were mistaken and, if so, the center can be candid in acknowledging that.
Yet I am confident that such a rigorous analysis of the past will produce a more balanced assessment than the conventional wisdom holds. And I am confident that such rigor and balance will be more useful to Republicans going forward than caricature is.
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While America's attention has been drawn to last week's terrorist attack upon Boston, events in North Korea continue to be cause for concern. The revelation last month that North Korea has taken "initial steps" to deploy a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, the KN-08, and the disclosure earlier this month that at least part of the U.S. intelligence community believes "with moderate confidence" (in intel-speak) that it possesses the ability to deploy a nuclear warhead atop the missile highlight the threat that Pyongyang poses to the United States.
It should come as no surprise that North Korea possesses, or will soon possess, the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile. After all, U.S. government commissions, U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies, and defense analysts have been warning of this eventuality for more than a decade. Pyongyang has been working on nuclear warheads for two decades and has conducted three nuclear tests. Both Israel and South Africa, by contrast, developed nuclear warheads for their missiles without conducting any nuclear tests. Moreover, as Peter Pry noted last week, the United States has possessed for more than fifty years nuclear missile warheads smaller and lighter than the satellite that North Korea lofted in December.
Skeptics will argue that North Korea has yet to demonstrate it has the ability to deploy nuclear warheads atop its ballistic missiles. Fair enough. But policy makers should not have to wait for Pyongyang to test a nuclear-armed ICBM to respond -- particularly when countermeasures are likely to take years to come to fruition.
The very real threat posed by North Korea has thrown into sharp relief the Obama administration's zig-zagging on missile defense. After coming to office, Obama's team scrapped the Bush administration's missile defense plan, putting in place the Phased Adaptive Approach that promised to deliver more effective missile defense based upon yet-to-be developed interceptors such as the Standard Missile 3 IIB.
Some analysts suspected at the time that the Obama administration was engaging in a game of bait-and-switch, junking a missile defense system based upon proven technologies in favor of a supposedly better one down the line that it would then fail to fund. It thus came as something less than a surprise when, in a move largely missed by the major news outlets, last month Secretary of Defense Hagel announced the cancellation of the final phase of the missile defense plan while promising to beef up the Bush-era missile defense site at Fort Greely, Alaska. These interceptors will not be deployed until 2017, however.
Enhancing U.S. missile defenses in response to North Korea's nuclear missile program would appear to be warranted, but it alone is likely to prove insufficient. The United States should consider enhancing its ability to strike North Korea, including its leadership and its ballistic missile launch infrastructure. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry and current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter wrote on June 22, 2006:
"Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil? We believe not."
Perry and Carter went on to argue in favor of a pre-emptive strike on a North Korean test missile on the launch pad. It would be worth asking Carter whether he continues to hold this view.
Finally, the United States should explore ways to enhance its extended nuclear deterrent of its allies, particularly South Korea and Japan. The Obama administration's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review scrapped the nuclear variant of the Tomahawk missile, which Tokyo looked to as the embodiment of the U.S. nuclear guarantee, and yet is years away from fielding the variant of the F-35 strike aircraft that will be capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Reassuring U.S. allies in the face of North Korean nuclear threats is likely to be both vital to stability in the region and an increasingly challenging task.
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Once again, international events are intruding upon the administration's determination to focus on domestic policy. To no one's surprise, except perhaps, that of the White House, Iran once again has signaled that it is not interested in serious negotiations unless all sanctions, presumably to include those imposed for its support of terrorism and violations of basic human rights, are lifted forthwith. In the meantime, North Korea's secular monarch, Kim Jong Un, has sparked a new crisis on the peninsula by ratcheting up his nation's bellicosity to fever pitch. And lastly, the Syrian government appears to have at last resorted to the employment of chemical weapons against the forces of the opposition, thus crossing the "red line" that President Obama drew some time ago.
The administration's response to Iran's predictable behavior has also been predictable: regret and not much more. Its response to North Korea has been more forceful: carrier, missile defense ships and stealth bomber deployments, as well as a boosting of the missile defense budget and joint exercises with the Republic of Korea forces. But it remains unclear, to the American public, the international community, and North Korea itself, how Washington might respond if Pyongyang begins to match its words with deeds.
As for Syria, the Pentagon has deployed about 200 troops from the 1st Armored Division to Jordan, a putative "vanguard" for a larger force that would enter Syria to secure that country's chemical weapons. But if, as Britain and France assert, Bashar al-Assad is already employing these weapons, it is not at all clear how an attempt to "secure" them might actually succeed. Would it be enough to send the 1st Armored Division, with its more than 300 tanks, into Syria? Would they not themselves face the likelihood of a chemical attack by Assad's forces? How would the Syrian population react to the appearance of American tanks inside their borders? Will they be welcomed as "liberators," as they were, all too briefly, in Iraq? And then what?
Moreover, it is highly unlikely that American land forces would enter Syria without the U.S. Navy and/or Air Force launching strikes to destroy Syrian air defenses and ground facilities, and to weaken its land forces. In other words, America would go to war in Syria.
Perhaps Britain and France would join the American operation, though it is unlikely they would lead it as they did in Libya. They simply do not have the resources, and perhaps the willpower to do so. So at the end of the day, the United States would have launched its third major war against a Muslim state since the beginning of the century. And, as with Iraq and Afghanistan, and indeed, the lesser Libya operation, for which Washington provided more support than was originally acknowledged, the consequences of such an attack cannot be foretold, and could well be negative.
In any event, it is not at all clear that Washington will in fact invade Syria. The last thing this administration wants is to invade another Arab state. Moreover, any additional forces deployed to Jordan could well be needed not only to assist with humanitarian activities, but also to ensure the stability of that American ally. About a half million refugees have already poured across the Syrian-Jordanian border, and some, perhaps many, of them could well be affiliated with Islamist extremists who are sworn enemies of the moderate, pro-Western King Abdullah. In the meantime, however, Assad would continue to employ chemical weapons as and when he deems it is useful to do so.
How then should Washington respond to the latest developments in Syria? Some suggest imposing an aerial no-fly zone near the Turkish border, and perhaps another near the Jordanian border. Others suggest a no-fly zone under the umbrella of Turkish-based Patriot missiles (assuming the Turks agree, of course). Yet no-fly zones will have little impact on the struggle that is taking place inside Syria apart from that between the regime and the opposition. In the conflict, between, on the one hand, Islamic extremists supported by the Qataris and to a lesser extent the Saudis, and, on the other, the moderate opposition, it is the extremists that are gaining the upper hand. Should the regime fall, and the extremists come to power, they will pose a new, and more immediate threat to both Israel and Jordan. Indeed, such a regime might well choose to align itself with Iran as well; after all, Hamas has received Iranian support ever since it came to power in Gaza. Washington's first priority, therefore, should be to ensure that the extremists do not control a post-Assad government. To do so, it must arm the moderate opposition. And it must do so now; time is not on the side of the moderates; indeed, as the revolutions and civil wars of the past, from the French to the Russian revolutions have demonstrated over and over again, time is rarely, if ever, on the side of the moderates.
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[Update: Last night, Venezuelan electoral authorities agreed to a partial audit of Sunday's vote, although not the full recount demanded by challenger Henrique Capriles.]
After an ill-advised overture to Hugo Chávez's government last November, the Obama administration has regained its footing with a strong, principled stance on Venezuela's contested election. Based on the razor-thin margin and opposition protests of irregularities, the administration has yet to recognize as the winner Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chávez's anointed successor, and has instead supported a review of the vote count.
In appearances before both the House and Senate in recent days, Secretary of State John Kerry re-affirmed that position "so that the people of Venezuela who participated in such a closely divided and important election can have the confidence that they have the legitimacy that is necessary in the government going forward."
He said, "I don't know whether it's going to happen. ... [But] obviously, if there are huge irregularities, we are going to have serious questions about the viability of that government."
Kerry's statements brought the predictable howls of protest from Venezuela. "It's obscene, the U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of Venezuela," Mr. Maduro said. "Take your eyes off Venezuela, John Kerry! Get out of here! Enough interventionism!"
But no one should be intimidated by such false bravado.
Maduro is in a panic. He knows he cannot handle declining socio-economic conditions in the face of a reinvigorated opposition, dissension in his own ranks, and an engaged U.S. government standing firm on principle regarding the legitimacy of his election.
Of course, the administration will face a vociferous public campaign by chavista sympathizers pressuring it to accept Sunday's disputed result. Already, the feckless Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza has backtracked from the organization's initial strong statement on behalf of a recount and now has accepted the result.
Recognition proponents will tell us the United States faces "isolation" in the region if the administration doesn't recognize Maduro (only Panama and Paraguay have joined the call for a recount) and that its supposed intransigence plays right into Maduro's hands, allowing him to whip up nationalist sentiment.
Nonsense. Those proposing such arguments fail to recognize that governments are pursuing interests. Certain countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and even Russia and China, have benefited greatly from economic ties with Venezuela under Chávez and their short-sighted view is to try and keep that spigot open.
Most citizens throughout the region, however, tend to be more appreciative of principles, such as the security and integrity of one's vote. One can be sure that, in case of a disputed election in their own country, they would hope to count on external support for an honest accounting in their own electoral processes.
Secondly, as the election just demonstrated, Maduro is not Chávez, and his capacity to whip up anything but official violence against Venezuelans protesting in the streets is extremely doubtful (Warning: graphic photos here). In short, no one should be misled by the noisemakers.
A continued firm stand on behalf of a clean election will resonate positively throughout the region, sending a strong signal to all democrats that the United States does indeed care and that intimidation and violence have no place in any democracy. It is not likely that such sentiments will sway Maduro and his Cuban advisors to accept any sort of recount, but it will certainly place the United States on the right side of the debates and confrontations to come.
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The World Bank's most successful program -- "Doing Business," which ranks countries on the ease of starting and running a formal business -- has helped spark major free market reforms in over 100 countries during its 10 years of existence. It serves as a major "strategic conversation starter" for American diplomats, makes it easier for entrepreneurs to get access to bank loans, increases the number of business start ups in developing countries, and helps governments bring companies out of the gray economy into the formal economy. But it now is in danger of being weakened, outsourced, or done away with.
So why would anyone dislike Doing Business? Countries that rank poorly compared to their geostrategic rivals (such as China, India, or Argentina) or don't believe in free markets and the private sector as the primary driver of prosperity tend to dislike the index. This has resulted in an unfortunate effort inside the World Bank to do away with the index.
Doing Business reflects a broadly American and widely accepted view about development -- that the private sector is its main driver. A small number of influential, vocal countries on the board of the World Bank such as China, Brazil and India dislike where they end up on the DB rankings. As a result, they have called on bank management to change the methodology of the report to reflect aspects that they can perform more highly on and to stop ranking countries according to the ease of doing business. In addition, several quarters are calling for the World Bank Group to give the Doing Business project to another institution.
Jim Kim became the new president in July 2012, and with his ascent, anti-reform forces within the bank's bureaucracy and on its board sensed their chance to kill, cripple, or "outsource" the index. After a messy board meeting last summer where no consensus was reached, Jim Kim punted and convened a panel to review Doing Business. That panel is expected to release a recommendation about the fate of Doing Business in May or June. This weekend the World Bank hosts its spring meetings, and Doing Business will be one of the hot topics of conversation t. For my day job, I am hosting an event on Friday morning to recognize the 10th anniversary of the report. The World Bank cancelled a large research conference last December following the 10th release of the report because of the review and the "controversy" around the index.
Doing Business ranks countries by how hard or easy it is to start a "formal' (tax-paying, bank loan-taking) business. In many countries, setting up a business "by the book" can cost tens of thousands of dollars and conceivably years of fighting red tape. But operating in an informal economy is bad for prosperity: no access to bank loans, many opportunities for bribes, and less folks paying any taxes at all. Doing Business was incubated with strong support from the Bush administration through contributions to the methodology from USAID, funding from USAID, and political support from State and Treasury. The last three World Bank presidents, especially Bob Zoellick, were strong supporters of Doing Business.
The fact that the World Bank releases an annual ranking gives Doing Business power and influence in unique ways because of the bank's pull in developing countries. Attempts to "outsource" Doing Business to an academic institution will greatly reduce the power of the index.
At a time when the Obama administration and development thought leaders speak about the importance of funding activities that are "evidence based" and "data driven," the data and facts generated by the Doing Business indicators are undeniable and powerful. The data creates the ability to compare countries and local governments across jurisdictions and have made it possible to systematically study the effects of regulations and red tape on private enterprise. Reforms empower entrepreneurs and takes power from crony capitalists.
To the administration's credit, they have supported Doing Business but could use some help from Republicans. Through Congressional action, Republicans need to weigh in with the administration (especially the Treasury Department) and with the World Bank's leadership.
This is a great bipartisan opportunity for the chairman and ranking members of the Senate and House Appropriations, Foreign Relations, and Financial Services Committees to take action to support a pro-business development agenda. Because the World Bank should be a force multiplier of American influence in the world, Republicans supported (and rightly so) the renewal of the general capital increase of the World Bank. In return for supporting the GCI, the U.S. should be expected to retain its "big seat" at the table and exercise that influence with Jim Kim and bring in allied shareholders in favor of strengthening Doing Business. Killing, crippling, or outsourcing the index to another institution is one of the worst things the World Bank could do and would be a direct rebuke to the bipartisan support that the World Bank receives.
The U.S. renewed its commitment to the World Bank through the GCI, and it is time for the World Bank to renew its commitment to a proven program that supports free markets, cuts corruption, and empowers entrepreneurs.
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Walter Russell Mead has just published his assessment of the Bush foreign policy legacy. He describes it as "Part One," which hints that more is forthcoming. But there is plenty to chew on in this first epistle.
Let me say up front that Mead's Via Meadia blog is one of the few genuine "must-reads" in the blogosphere, that I am very often in agreement with much of what he writes there, and that I consider Walter a personal friend and intellectual mentor. The Economist calls Mead the "bearded sage," and it is an apt appreciation. I regularly assign his books to my students, and they are among the favorite class readings each semester.
So I have tried to weigh his words carefully, and there is much truth in his account. Iraq and Afghanistan were riddled with strategic and tactical mistakes. American diplomacy, especially during the first term, often was clumsy and needlessly provocative. Don't just take my or Mead's word for it -- former President Bush himself has acknowledged as much.
As it says in the Good Book, "faithful are the wounds of a friend." As an erstwhile supporter of many Bush Administration policies and as a consistent friend of reasoned discourse, wise policy, and America's national interests, Mead's words should be considered and taken in the irenic and constructive spirit they are intended.
So what hath Mead wrought? Part of the question concerns his intended purpose, which seems to veer back and forth between a political assessment of the Bush years' damage to the GOP brand in the minds of voters, and a policy assessment of Bush's overall national security legacy. The two are related but still distinct. A healthy political assessment would entail two things: On policy mistakes, it means Republicans engaging in healthy public discussion of where and why we got things wrong, and on policy successes it means describing the things we did get right -- especially in the first drafts of history now being written.
My fundamental concern with the Mead article is that it concentrates exclusively on the policy mistakes while completely ignoring the successes, and thus presents an imbalanced and even distorted picture of the overall Bush legacy.
Just as a catalogue of the Bush administration's mistakes and deficiencies, there is much Mead cites to contemplate, including many aspects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Heck, I could even add a few other items to the list, such as the mistaken policy in the 2007-2008 window of easing pressure and offering inducements to the North Korean regime in the vain hopes that then-dictator Kim Jong Il would relinquish his nuclear weapons.
But as an effort to take a comprehensive stock of the Bush administration's foreign policy, to weigh the Bush legacy as a whole, well, even bearded sages are not infallible oracles (nor, in fairness, would a good Anglican like Mead claim infallibility!). Mead overlooks many strategic successes of the Bush administration and in places seems to blame Bush for things that did not occur on his watch. In short, reading this assessment seems rather like reading an account of Reagan's presidency that highlights major failings like the Iran-Contra scandal, the Beirut Marine barracks bombing, serious rifts with European allies, and increases in deficit spending -- but then somehow fails to mention Reagan's leadership in the Cold War's dénouement and Soviet defeat. Or like reading an account of the Truman administration that only describes the quagmire of the Korean war, the fall of China to communism, and the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb -- but fails to mention the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, and other successful foundations of American Cold War policy.
No, no, I am not simply equating Reagan or Truman with Bush. What I am saying is this: In the main strategic threat the Bush faced as president, of Islamist terrorism, he succeeded in the overarching goal after September 11 of protecting the nation from any other large-scale terrorist attack. This possibility, almost unthinkable in the weeks and months after 9/11, is a first-order success and important context for the Bush record. Yet Mead does not mention it at all. Nor does he mention another revealing validation of the Bush legacy: the fact that the Obama administration has largely embraced the entire Bush counterterrorism system and strategic framework.
Turning to Bush's freedom agenda, Mead seems to imply that the current instability and chaos of the Arab Awakening are somehow Bush's fault, or at least can fairly be ascribed to the Bush administration by the American public (e.g. "the argument that Bush's Arab democracy promotion agenda was such a glittering success that we should double down on it is a big time loser in American politics"). But this is caricature. It overlooks two fundamentally important points. First, Bush in 2003 made the strategic insight that the old order of American support for sclerotic autocracies across the Middle East simply was not tenable. The autocracies were fragile, corrupt, oppressive, and unsustainable as stable pillars of a strategic order. Second, Bush called for supporting political reform and human liberty as an urgent alternative to popular revolution.
In other words, Bush tried to put the United States on the side of Arab and Persian popular aspirations for more accountable governance before things boiled over into rioting in the streets, as began in December 2010 in Tunisia. It is simply a false choice to imply that the Arab autocracies could have continued indefinitely, as stable custodians of order in a fractious region. Instead, better to push for peaceful reforms within those systems while it was still possible. So while Bush can be credited with predicting that something like the Arab Awakening would eventually happen, he should not be blamed for the disappointments when it actually did take place. (The Obama administration, on the other hand, will likely not be judged well by history for its confused and negligent policies toward the Arab and Persian revolutions).
Mead also completely fails to mention another important Bush legacy, one that arguably might be more consequential as history unfolds: building the foundation for a new strategic order in Asia. From the strategic opening to India, to strengthened alliances with traditional friends like Japan and Australia and new partnerships with emerging powers like Vietnam, to the dual-track framework of engagement and dissuasion towards China, the Bush administration laid the groundwork for continued American leadership in the Asia-Pacific, the most dynamic region of the 21st century. Again, wisdom is vindicated by her children. After some Asia-policy missteps in its first year, the Obama administration pivoted (sorry, couldn't resist) back to the Bush strategic framework for Asia.
There are many other Bush successes and legacies that Mead fails to mention, including one of the most successful public health programs in history (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS relief targeted in sub-Saharan Africa), extensive free trade agreements, expansion of ballistic missile defense (for which the Obama White House is now very thankful), Libya's relinquishment of its WMD program, the comprehensive peace agreement in Sudan that laid the groundwork for South Sudan's independence, and the first official presidential commitment to Palestinian statehood, just to cite a few. On balance and in the whole, the Bush foreign policy legacy stands a good chance of being judged more favorably in history than by the conventional wisdom today.
What does all of this mean for Mead's main point? He is right that Republicans need to come to terms with the Bush administration's legacy. Yet what complicates that is the implicit demand by many in the media and punditocracy that "coming to terms" requires "embracing the caricature." Peddling the Bush caricature may help the electoral prospects of Democrats, but what would help Republicans more -- and the cause of constructive debate overall -- is an accurate, balanced, and comprehensive assessment of the Bush foreign policy. Which in truth is far more nuanced than the incomplete assessment, verging on caricature, which emerges from Mead's "part one." I am hopeful that "part two" will be more judicious.
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I have been thinking a lot about military mistakes lately.
This is partly triggered by the series of Iraq-related ten-year anniversaries, which will lead us to replay through our rear-view mirror the unraveling of Phase IV operations in Iraq over the coming years.
But it is even more triggered by some unrelated reading and "active learning" exercises I am doing with my Duke students. A few weeks ago, my students did a virtual staff ride of Operation Anaconda, courtesy of Tom Donnelly and the fine team at the Marilyn Ware Center at AEI. It was an extraordinary experience for the students, who prepared to role-play different key figures in the battle. As is usually the case with such staff rides, a fair bit of time is spent on dissecting what went wrong, and the students usually turn in some of their finest work in role-playing someone explaining/excusing his/her own character's errors whilst blaming someone else.
What made this event extra special, however, was the participation of several Special Operations Force representatives from Ft. Bragg, two of whom had actually been in the battle we were studying. Their perspective was invaluable, and their contributions to the discussion had a profound effect on my students. Yet even they would admit that there were quite a number of things that went poorly for the U.S.-led coalition in that battle, and not all of them can be dismissed as "bad luck."
Similarly, a different group of students are preparing for an actual staff ride to Gettysburg later this week, and that of course is one of the most famous of mistake-riddled battles in American history.
And, for good measure, I have started to read Army at Dawn, the first volume in Rick Atkinson's magisterial trilogy about World War II. This volume covers the U.S-British invasion of North Africa, and so far in my reading it is a cavalcade of errors and bone-headed decisions by the U.S. and especially the British commanders.
The costs of the mistakes are hard to calculate precisely. Arguably, the mistakes at Gettysburg resulted in tens of thousands of casualties (dead and wounded) that might otherwise have been avoided. The casualties-by-mistake-tally for Operation Torch probably is in the thousands. Anaconda produced roughly 100 dead and wounded on the U.S. side, so the casualties-by-mistake number would be some fraction of that.
All of these are a grim reminder that in war mistakes happen and, when they do, people pay for those mistakes with their lives. However, as the daily headlines out of Syria demonstrate, not-intervening can also produce a grim tally of death and destruction.
This is the tragedy of power, one that must surely gnaw at the Obama administration. They know that to act is to risk painful consequences, but they are also discovering that to not act is also producing painful consequences. Does there come a point when the bigger military mistake is not acting?
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Experts and policymakers watching the situation in Syria are conflicted about what should be done to stop the bloody actions of the Assad government. Those who support a "responsibility to protect" argue that the international community -- including the U.S. -- should be doing more to stop Assad's slaughter of innocents; realists claim that there is not enough at stake for the U.S. to become involved in yet another Middle East conflict; and al Qaida experts are concerned that aid sent to the rebels could end up helping the extremists rather than ordinary Syrians.
If either the U.S. or international community had intervened before the fall of 2012, there would have been fewer disputes about Syria policy. Both al Qaida experts and those who support "responsibility to protect" were generally on the same page: Stopping the brutal actions of the regime and preventing the extremists from gaining a foothold required involvement, and there was a clear non-extremist resistance group to support.
Since then, however, part of the resistance -- embittered by our lack of assistance and desperate to survive -- has been enticed into the embrace of extremists and especially into that of an al Qaida affiliated group called Jabhat al-Nusra. If the international community or the U.S. decides to arm the resistance now, there is a fair chance that the weapons and other support material could fall into the hands of al Qaida and be used against us after the conflict in Syria ends.
While the experts have debated policy, the bloodshed has continued. Assad's decision to once again bomb civilians has, however, returned to the fore another possibility for U.S. policy in Syria: the enforcement of a no-fly zone to prevent Assad from targeting and killing civilians with his air force. This strategy has been proposed by many others over the past two years and was recently raised once more by Carl Levin. I would suggest that now, more than ever, it needs to be seriously considered by both the Obama administration and by realists, since the risks of inaction are now far greater than the risks of action. If the U.S. chooses to continue to do nothing, there are five very bad things that are likely to happen, while if the U.S. chooses to put in place a no-fly zone there is a low probability of bad outcomes and a greater chance for a whole series of good results.
The Risks and Benefits of Inaction
There are only two benefits associated with inaction: We will save a little money and pilots will not be put in jeopardy. The risks of inaction are, in contrast, overwhelming. First, thousands more Syrians will die and Syrians will blame the U.S. and international community for these deaths. After all, the U.S. showed in Libya that it could intervene to overthrow a tyrant whenever it chose, but for reasons that do not make sense to Syrians has determined not to help them. Second, the conflict will continue to spread beyond Syria. Over the past few months, violence has erupted in northern Lebanon, where Jabhat al-Nusra has spread its influence, and the war has spilled across the borders into Iraq and Jordan. Third, at this point, the war in Syria may be radicalizing as many Sunnis throughout the Muslim-majority world as the war in Iraq. Not only that, but this radicalization is being pointed by the extremists at the U.S. and other Western powers. The extremists have been quick to use our non-intervention to argue that the U.S. is allowing the slaughter of Syrians and in fact actually supports Assad's bloody reign. Finally, there is a possibility that the current resistance might overthrow Assad without our help and create a new Syria that is open to domination by the extremists. What chance would the U.S. and the international community have to influence the direction that this new Syria might take if we did not intervene when we could to save lives?
The Risks and Benefits of Action
In direct contrast, the risks of action are minimal: Although highly unlikely, it is possible that Assad might be able to shoot down an American plane. There is also the chance that the U.S. might, however indirectly, empower extremists within the resistance. But the benefits far outweigh these risks. A no-fly zone will save lives, show ordinary Syrians and Muslims around the world that the U.S. and the international community take the bloodshed seriously, help to mitigate the radicalization and influence exerted by the extremists, and grant us some say within any new Syria that is created. But time is running out. The longer the conflict continues without our involvement, the more Syrians and other Muslims will be tempted to listen to the arguments of the extremists about our supposed hatred for Muslims and the more they will be radicalized into action against us and others.
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If readers of ForeignPolicy.com have detected a "West Coast" vibe to the website this week, that's because many of us regular contributors are currently attending the International Studies Association annual conference in San Francisco. From Foreign Policy's ranks I've enjoyed seeing Dan Drezner, David Bosco, Steve Walt, and Peter Feaver, among others, in the halls and at different panels.
Today I spoke on a panel titled "Christian Realism in the White House? An Assessment of Reinhold Niebuhr's Influence on Barack Obama's Foreign Policy." Given the recent resurgence of interest in Niebuhr, prompted in part by then-candidate Obama's own favorable comments about Niebuhr to David Brooks in 2007, I thought I would share the following summary of my remarks.
The first disclaimer is that we should not and cannot try to ascertain "what would Niebuhr say today about x or y issue," because to do so wrenches Niebuhr out of his own time and place. Niebuhr's own beliefs can be very elusive; his public career spanned roughly a half century that began with World War I, the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, Soviet communism, the nuclear age, two land wars in Asia, the birth of Israel, and multiple wars in the Middle East, just to mention a few. The very fact that he acted in history, in a particular time, place, and context, should caution and perhaps even chasten us against too readily attempting to appropriate him for our own 21st century purposes. To do so would be to do violence to his prophetic voice and to his own contingencies as a historical actor.
The second cautionary note follows from the first, and it is against the trap that Paul Elie memorably described as turning Niebuhr into "A Man for All Reasons," as various public personalities try to claim the mantle of Niebuhr for their own various ideologies or favored issues across the political spectrum. Niebuhr's thought has wisdom for all of us, but endorsements for none of us.
But historical context does not mean historical silence, and Niebuhr's body of ideas still has much to say of contemporary relevance. He is not so embalmed in the past that we cannot reflect on his principles for the world today. In that respect, I would apply four Niebuhrian themes to President Obama's foreign policy, two affirmations, and two critiques.
First, I see two Niebuhrian resonances in Obama's foreign policy:
1) American Limits. This is one of the most visible Niebuhrian themes in Obama's foreign policy -- an appreciation of the limits of American power. The Obama White House has made explicit that this is in part their reaction to the perceived excesses of the Bush administration's confidence in American power, and also to a realization of the constraints on American action in an era of severe fiscal austerity and extended military deployments. This notion of limits pervades Niebuhr's thought and is especially pronounced in the Irony of American History. To take just one illustrative quote from this book, written in 1952 in the midst of one of America's most dominant positions in the international system, "our own nation ... is less potent to do what it wants in the hour of its greatest strength than it was in the days of its infancy."
2) "Dirty Hands." To the surprise of most of his supporters and detractors alike, President Obama has been very aggressive in his use of force against terrorists, terrorism supporters, and those suspected of terrorist intentions. These tactics, most especially the drone campaign, are morally ambiguous across multiple dimensions, including the questions of preventive action, noncombatant immunity, and executive authority. Yet this willingness to wield force, to get "dirty hands" in the quest for proximate justice and to defeat a greater evil, is a classic Niebuhrian theme. As Niebuhr once wrote of American nuclear policy in the early Cold War "We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization."
Two other Niebuhrian themes are critical of Obama's foreign policy:
3) Ideological Lassitude: The Obama administration has done little to articulate the ideological stakes in the conflict with militant Islamism, either to define what we seek to defend or what we fight against. Obama speaks occasionally of a "war against al Qaeda and associated groups" but has done little to develop and articulate either an analysis of the ideological comprehension of al Qaeda or of the ideological distinctiveness of the United States and allies and partners fighting against this foe. Such a neglect of the ideational dimension of a conflict is alien to Niebuhrian thought. Much of his life's intellectual work can be considered an extended defense of democratic civilization, exemplified by The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, even as he was also one of the most persistent critics of democratic illusions and propensities to self-righteousness. Niebuhr also devoted considerable intellectual energies to probing the ideological nature of America's mid-century foes, be they German Nazism or Soviet Communism. Of the former, Niebuhr as early as June 1933 denounced Hitler for imposing a "totalitarian" government in Germany that deified the state, and when he later resigned from the Socialist Party over his support for American entry into World War II, he wrote that "if Hitler is defeated in the end it will be because the crisis has awakened in us the will to preserve a civilization in which justice and freedom are realities, and given us the knowledge that ambiguous methods are required for the ambiguities of history." Of Soviet communism, volumes could be devoted to Niebuhr's sustained critique, which included identifying it as a "monstrous evil" and "false religion" that deified both the state and the historical dialectic as the author of history, dangerously monopolized power, embodied utopian illusions, and embraced a materialist view of reality. In short, his advocacy for a robust American confrontation with the Soviet Union was based on a highly ideological understanding of the conflict.
This is not to imply that President Obama is not committed to democratic values or does not understand the ideological dimension of the conflict, but rather that he seems curiously reluctant to explain these themes to the American people and our allies. Just as the Obama administration's drone war takes place in the shadows, so also is the Obama administration's ideological rationale for the conflict confined to the shadows.
4) Unrealistic Pragmatism: The most extensive and sympathetic treatment of President Obama's thought comes from Harvard historian James Kloppenberg, whose book Reading Obama identifies Obama as a philosophical pragmatist in the tradition of William James and John Dewey. Niebuhr, however, criticized pragmatism as a flawed account of human nature and reality and regarded Dewey as one of his primary intellectual adversaries. In Niebuhr's mind, pragmatism was fundamentally unrealistic.
Niebuhrian principles would be suspicious of Obama's pragmatism, seeing in it both an undue confidence in his own reason and an unwarranted optimism about the possibilities of human nature and social organization. In other words, while Obama may appreciate the limits of American power, he seems less mindful of the limits on his own wisdom and virtue. This was perhaps revealed by his naïve offers of unconditional negotiation with rogue regimes in his first term, or his resistance to accountability for the drone campaign. In foreign policy terms, Niebuhrianism would also regard pragmatism as a cause of "muddling through," as experimentation unmoored from a broader set of strategic principles and foundational values. Such pragmatism is leery of democracy promotion and thus lacks a strategic framework to detect opportunities such as the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. This might help explain the Obama administration's tentative and erratic response to the Arab Awakening, with a half-hearted intervention in Libya, vacillations on Egypt, and negligence on Syria. In philosophical terms, pragmatism perhaps marks Obama's most significant deviation from Niebuhrianism.
The Center for New American Security (CNAS) has published a new report that I did with Jim Golby and Kyle Dropp on the influence of military opinion on public opinion when it comes to the use of force.
This is the second installment in a larger project -- last fall CNAS published another Golby-Dropp-Feaver product looking at the influence of military opinion on public opinion when it comes to choosing presidents. (I blogged about that one too.)
The basic intuition undergirding the project is the recognition that the military has a distinctive role in American politics. On the one hand, by tradition, norms, and law, military institutions are supposed to be apolitical -- not involved in partisan politics and fulfilling an advisory role in the policymaking process. On the other hand, by virtue of the prominence of military tools in American foreign policy, the military's greater professional expertise, and the enormous trust the public has in the military (especially in comparison with civilian political institutions), the military may in fact play a larger role than theoreticians of normative civil-military relations would like to see.
Our approach is empirical. We are trying to answer what is the effect, which is a necessary part of any normative evaluation of what ought to be the effect or role. So far as we have been able to determine, there is not a lot of good systematic data available on these questions beyond the ones we collected for this project. Our data are pretty extensive: YouGov administered the survey via the Internet and conducted interviews with 5,500 Americans between May 31, 2012, and July 28, 2012. The 5,500 interviews in our database are a sample matched on gender, age, race, education, party identification, ideology, and political interest to be representative of the general population, as determined by the 2007 American Community Survey. But we don't pretend this report offers the final word on the subject.
Our bottom line:
The results of our recent national survey show that military opposition reduces public support for the use of force abroad by 7 percentage points, whereas military support increases overall public support by 3 percentage points. These military cues are most influential among Republican respondents. Furthermore, military influence on public opinion is greatest when it opposes (rather than supports) interventions abroad.
Read it and tell me what you think we got right or wrong.
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I can recommend a new Aspen Institute book out that evaluates the impact of the Arab Spring on American policy and captures a vigorous debate within the Aspen Strategy Group. The book is The Arab Revolutions and American Policy, an edited volume by Nick Burns and Jonathon Price, with a chapter by yours truly.
My chapter assesses the overall Obama strategy -- I give a decidedly mixed assessment -- and was paired with chapters written by David Ignatius and Martin Indyk. The feedback I got on the chapter was decidedly mixed too. About half of the experts (regional specialists from the Bush administration) thought that I was way too generous with Obama -- one called me a "squish" for pulling punches and bending over backwards to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. The other half of the experts (mostly regional specialists and senior policymakers from the Obama administration) thought that I was grossly unfair to the administration and overly critical. I am left with the inescapable conclusion that I got it just right.
(The bizarro-world reaction was rather like the response to my Iraq war myths post: one group of commentators complained bitterly that I was knocking down strawmen arguments that no one believed, and another group of commentators complained bitterly that I was calling those same arguments as myths when they were indisputable truths. At least the reviewers of my Aspen Strategy Group paper had the intellectual integrity to provide comments without hiding behind pseudonyms.)
The argument in my Aspen chapter is simple: Obama's Arab strategy has achieved its top priority short-term goal, which is "no more Iraqs," defined as a sectarian civil war that engulfs the region and involves thousands of U.S. ground troops. However, in Syria even this modest goal is only barely met: There is a sectarian civil war that is engulfing the region, but it does not (yet) involve thousands of U.S. ground troops. Obama has failed to achieve most medium-term goals for the strategy, such as seizing opportunities to make progress on long-standing regional desiderata: assuring peace between Palestinians and Israelis; guaranteeing a nuclear-free Iran; or locking in any gains from the Iraq war. And the strategy seems unlikely to achieve the long-term goals, whether of the ambitious sort embedded in the president's soaring rhetoric (cf. the Cairo speech) or the modest sort proposed by administration supporters hoping to be graded on the curve, such as avoiding the establishment of new anti-American regimes in the region.
This is a record without gross errors of commission but with many errors of omission. It is a record that looked better last summer, when the Aspen Strategy Group met, than it does today. And it may look even worse in the years to come.
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North Korea's recent saber-rattling raises troubling new questions about the bipartisan failure of American policy to limit Pyongyang's armed recklessness and to manage its growing threat to the United States and our allies. Over the past few years, North Korea has walked across previous "red lines" -- attacking South Korean territory and sinking a South Korean naval vessel, abrogating the armed truce that has governed the peninsula for six decades, directly threatening the United States and our allies with attack, repeatedly testing nuclear weapons, and testing an inter-continental ballistic missile capable of hitting U.S. territory -- all with impunity. Is it time for Washington and its allies to implement a more robust containment policy to counter the erosion of Northeast Asian security caused by Pyongyang's dangerous provocations?
To sketch out such a policy is not to endorse it, for it entails considerable risks. But the risks attending the current status quo appear to be growing and unsustainable. Indeed, on current trends, America and its allies may be on a collision course with North Korea unless we consider a new approach that deprives Pyongyang of the strategic initiative that is keeping the Asia-Pacific democracies off-balance. Such an approach would be most effective if coordinated between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo with support from other regional powers. It might also help change China's calculations about whether and to what extent to support an "ally" that has become an acute strategic liability.
An aggressive containment strategy would tighten existing financial sanctions on North Korea by penalizing any third-country bank or firm doing business with it. In particular, Chinese entities would be faced with a choice: Do business with the United States, Japan, and South Korea, or with North Korea -- but not both.
On the military side, an intensified containment strategy would interdict all ship-borne traffic heading to North Korea in international waters to inspect it for contraband, including WMD components. Rather than passively observing and measuring the success of North Korean missile launches, a containment strategy with juice would have the United States and Japan jointly shoot down those missiles, depriving Pyongyang of the propaganda victories it claims following each test. In cyberspace, the United States and its allies could pursue a tit-for-tat approach to North Korean provocations, turning out the lights in Pyongyang when its leaders threaten us and our allies.
Using its soft power of attraction rather than relying purely on the hard power of its sophisticated military capabilities, South Korea could offer to open its borders to any North Korean able to escape their gulag of a country by land or sea, in a sort of "tear-down-this wall" policy that would complicate North Korea's ability to police its borders -- and undercut the legitimacy of the Pyongyang regime by demonstrating to the world how many of its citizens are desperate to leave it behind.
In his 1999 Landon Lecture at Kansas State University, Senator John McCain urged the United States to stop playing "prevent defense" when it came to North Korea, moving instead to a policy of "rogue-state rollback" that targeted the legitimacy and power of the regime itself. The question for leaders in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo is whether they are ready to move to a more active policy that chips away at the foundations of a Pyongyang regime that directly threatens their people and their interests -- not only in Asia but also in the Middle East, where Iran's budding nuclear weapons program benefits from North Korean assistance. For China's new leaders, the question is whether the albatross of North Korea now so threatens stability in Northeast Asia that cutting it off is actually less risky than continuing to underwrite it.
The Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience" may soon need to give way to a policy of "strategic initiative" that prevents the people of the United States and our closest Asian allies from being held hostage to the whims of the tyrant in Pyongyang.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that North Korea had in recent years sunk a South Korean submarine. In fact, the North sank a corvette belonging to the South and not a submarine.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
The media is transfixed on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's threat to escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula. Kim has already declared that the North is on a full war footing, put his rocket forces on "full alert," and promised to nuke Washington and destroy the South. Predictably, a host of North Korea pundits are getting air and print time urging the administration to "engage" Pyongyang to prevent a rush to war on the peninsula (Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson is ubiquitous, but fortunately we have been spared the geostrategic musings of NBA body art nightmare Dennis Rodman, the most recent high profile visitor to Pyongyang).
Young Kim and his National Defense Commission obviously want all attention on the escalation ladder they are now producing, directing, and starring in. However, it is the other escalation ladder that is far more important to them and threatening to us: the North's two decade nuclear and ballistic missile weapons development programs. Reports now suggest that Pyongyang's recent nuclear test was a well-concealed explosion of a uranium device. The test was probably successful and therefore positions the North to begin producing nuclear weapons in the near future by spinning centrifuges underground where detection and elimination will be a far more difficult task for the United States. With a deliverable nuclear weapons capability -- likely aimed at Japan and Guam first -- Pyongyang will seek to force sanctions relief and "peaceful coexistence" with the United States as a "fellow nuclear weapons state." When the North is ready to increase the protection price for not driving a pick-up truck through our store window, they will threaten to export their technology to the Middle East or engage in smaller scale provocations under cover of a nuclear deterrent, i.e., threaten to drive an even bigger pick-up truck through our store window.
All of this reflects a recurring pattern over the past 15 years. This time, however, the rhetoric is more shrill and unnerving. Most commentary has attributed this to young Kim's need to establish credibility with his generals -- at least one of whom he has already blown up (literally) as a message to the others. But if you think about the other escalation ladder, it would seem there is a more important audience -- China. Beijing surprised the North by supporting chapter seven Security Council sanctions last month in the wake of the North's missile test -- and then surprised the experts by actually implementing those sanctions with inspections at its ports. China is the one country that could bring down the North, but Pyongyang understands how to terrify Chinese leaders like a small wasp buzzing around the nose of a giant. It appears that the North's newest bellicosity may have worked. The U.N. Security Council committees responsible for implementing sanctions were humming along for the first few weeks after the members of the council unanimously adopted the tough new resolution. Then, Beijing suddenly put the brakes on last week.
Since they have learned how badly it can play for the party in power politically, the Obama administration has generally preferred not to put North Korea on the front burner. But the administration was right to brandish force, not only as a reassuring deterrent to our allies but also as a signal to Beijing that we will not be knocked off track by North Korean bluster. Of course, that signal would be more credible if the administration had not engineered a sequestration strategy that cuts our Navy and Air Force, but that is the topic for another post.
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As a former U.S. official with substantial experience in Venezuela, I was not surprised, but still outraged to hear the temporary new leader of that country, Nicolas Maduro, accuse the United States of murdering his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. I feel obliged to set the record straight, not because I care about what Maduro thinks, but because if not challenged, Maduro's latest falsehood will become another urban legend circulating the globe on the Internet.
Predictably, in two dozen interviews I gave to international press in the 48 hours following Chávez's death, two journalists, one from the BBC and one from the U.S. Spanish-language CNN channel, questioned me about Maduro's accusation, implying it was credible that the United States had "inoculated Chávez with the cancer" that killed him. I replied, of course, that the United States had nothing to do with his death.
Despite the hostility that characterized the U.S. relationship with Chávez, it is not only false to accuse the United States of killing Chávez, but the truth is that we likely prevented his assassination on more than one occasion. Since, as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the George W. Bush administration, I played a part in at least one of those instances, I feel compelled to defend our country once again from the calumnies of our foes and their acolytes by relating just one such incident. While everything herein is the best of my recollection, contemporary State Department records will substantiate the facts.
On a routine day in 2002, my secretary called me to the phone: "Ambassador Shapiro needs to talk to you on ‘secure,'" the encrypted U.S. government telephone network by which sensitive conversations are conducted. Charles Shapiro was our ambassador to Venezuela, and receiving calls from him and other ambassadors on "secure" was also routine. Weeks before, Charles and I had communicated often via secure phone for days as we attempted to manage the U.S. response to Chávez's removal from the presidency by his own people, and his subsequent return.
"Have you seen the report on the latest conspiracy to kill Chávez?," Shapiro asked.
I replied: "Yes, I did. Is this one real"?
This article is cross-posted from Foreign Policy's main site. Read the rest of the article here.
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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.