The United States, protected by two oceans and with a global range of allies and interests, has found for a century that it must go abroad to shape and lead a dangerous world. But President Barack Obama seems, in some respects, to prefer to stay home. Whereas George W. Bush's foreign policy was maximalist, Obama's is minimalist. A foreign policy assessment only halfway through his presidency is no doubt unfair -- he may yet vanquish Iran's nuclear weapons program, put an overdue end to Syria's bloody civil war, stand down Chinese aggression in Asian waters, and oversee a historic wave of trade liberalization. But he has not yet. The Obama Doctrine appears less ambitious. Here are its elements to date:
Nation-building at home, not abroad. President Obama took office so determined to "end the war" in Iraq that he failed to negotiate a follow-on force to sustain stability there. In Afghanistan, after a decade of allied sacrifice and real gains, the administration astonishingly is now flirting with the "zero option" of leaving no U.S. forces there after 2014. Obama prefers to focus on "nation-building at home." But will he be able to if Iraq or Afghanistan backslide into civil war, or if Syria's violent spillover engulfs the Middle East? For all the tactical efficacy of drone strikes, the United States cannot possibly defeat terrorism without at the same time working to build free and prosperous societies in countries, like Pakistan, that nurture it.
Resisting transformationalism. Notwithstanding excellent speeches about bridging the gap between America and the Muslim world, President Obama has treaded more gingerly in his policies. He did not support Iran's Green Revolution and has stood back from the opportunities inherent in the Arab Awakening, allowing post-strongman societies in the Middle East to devise new political arrangements for themselves. Obama has a nuanced understanding of the limits of power and the tragedy of international politics from his oft-cited reading of Reinhold Niebuhr. But the greater tragedy may be declining to use America's great power to more actively support Arab and Iranian liberals desperate to build free societies against fierce opposition from Islamist and ancien regime forces.
"Leading from behind." In Libya, Syria, and now Mali, we have seen Washington's European allies push for, or carry out themselves, armed interventions to uphold human rights and regional stability. Americans are used to being the hawks in world affairs, and Europeans the doves -- but those roles have reversed under President Obama. This turns the transatlantic bargain on its head: Europeans now seem more concerned with policing out-of-area crises, with America playing a supporting role. But is such passivity really in Washington's interest? Can Europe really lead in matters of war and peace without America at the front?
Rebalancing American power toward Asia. America's "pivot" has been welcomed in much of Asia and across party lines in Washington. But as Joseph Nye argues, the United States has been pivoting to Asia since the end of the Cold War. It would be more accurate to say that Obama himself pivoted away from seeking a G-2 condominium with China to balancing against it. His administration's support for liberalization in Myanmar has been historic -- but senior U.S. officials say the process is driven by Naypyidaw, not Washington. It is also unclear if the pivot is more than a rhetorical policy; President Obama has already authorized defense budget cuts of nearly $900 million and supports more.
Unsentimentality towards allies. Even amidst the rebalance, Asian allies like Japan and friends like India have felt neglected by this American president. Similarly, Obama's attention to the transatlantic relationship seems inversely proportional to the affection Europeans feel for him. Despite significant defense transfers, the U.S. administration appears as concerned with preventing Israel from attacking Iran as preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Hard-headedness is a virtue in international relations. America's allies, however, expect it to be directed more at U.S. adversaries than at our friends.
A trade policy high in ambition, if not results. President Obama commendably seeks to double U.S. exports as part of an economic recovery program. His administration has sketched out a transformative vision of an Atlantic marketplace and a Trans-Pacific Partnership. But movement on both has been very slow -- at least as slow as the three years it took for Obama to send Congress free trade agreements, with Korea and other countries, negotiated by his predecessor. The potential for an ambitious trade opening is promising -- if Obama can deliver.
President John F. Kennedy said America would pay any price and bear any burden in support of liberty. President Obama has made clear that under his leadership, America will not do quite so much. But strategic minimalism and a focus on the domestic means problems abroad only grow, inevitably pulling America into crises on less favorable terms. The world looks to America for strategic initiative to solve its thorniest problems. At the moment, demand for this leadership is greater than supply.
This article appeared over the weekend in the special Security Times edition prepared for the Munich Conference on Security Policy and published by Germany's Times Media. The paper as it appeared in print is available at www.times-media.de .
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In the latest installment of a continuing research project on partisan commitments and foreign policy views, some colleagues and I have just published some of our latest findings with that, er, other journal. Following up on last summer's survey of executive branch policymakers from both parties, we have now surveyed a broad group of Congressional staff members to explore the question: just how divided is Congress on foreign policy?
As Josh Busby, Jon Monten, Jordan Tama, and I describe here, the results may be somewhat surprising, especially given the prevailing headlines about Congressional acrimony and gridlock. Our survey instead found unanticipated levels of bipartisan agreement among Congressional staff of both chambers and both parties on issues such as the importance of the U.S. commitment to multilateral institutions like NATO, the WTO, IMF, and World Bank, and to allies such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. The survey also found high levels of agreement on broader principles such as preserving U.S. sovereignty, yet also affirming the importance of multilateral cooperation on national security priorities.
Of course some pronounced differences emerge as well on certain issues. For example, Democratic staff really like the International Atomic Energy Association (over 75 percent view it favorably); Republican staff really don't (only 21 percent view it favorably). Republican staff are overwhelmingly supportive of Israel; Democratic staff comparably less so.
The two surveys reveal some interesting intra-party differences between the two branches. Republicans in the executive branch had a more favorable view than congressional Republicans of global economic institutions, such as the World Bank, the WTO, and the IMF, and were more likely to support the principle that abiding by unfavorable WTO rulings was in our long-term interest. Executive branch Republicans also had more favorable views of the U.S. relationships with Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the same time, both groups of Republicans strongly supported the idea that trade, non-proliferation, and terrorism were important issues that could be addressed multilaterally.
Among Democrats, a significantly greater percentage of executive branch officials considered climate change to be a very important issue, but most Democrats in both branches said multilateral cooperation on climate change and every other issue that we asked about was important, and Democrats in Congress and the executive branch shared favorable views of most international institutions.
Full results of the comparison can be found here.
The topic of partisan divisions in foreign policy is also a fitting occasion to honor Ambassador Max Kampelman, who died on Friday at the age of 92, and whose career bears witness to the possibility of patriotic service to both parties. Will Tobey's eloquent tribute below sketches the arc of Kampelman's remarkable life. From pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II to staunch anticommunist and Cold Warrior, from committed Democrat and aide to Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale to senior Reagan administration official (while still a committed Democrat), and from prominent human rights advocate to nuclear weapons negotiator, Kampelman's life embodied the twentieth century itself. Notably, he was equally committed to and adept at human rights advocacy as he was at nuclear diplomacy. Such a policy combination might sound unusual amidst contemporary bureaucratic stovepipes, but in his mind both issues formed a comprehensive strategic vision for the confrontation with the Soviet Union.
I had the privilege of meeting Ambassador Kampelman only once, about a decade ago when I was on a fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute. I had convened a panel discussion on religion and foreign policy; Ambassador Kampelman attended and offered some customarily thoughtful remarks. Later that week he wrote me a very gracious letter with his appreciation for the conference, and included some fascinating reflections on the connection between the theological origins of monotheism and universal human rights.
For an introduction to Kampelman's distinguished statesmanship and inimitable style, I commend to our readers his own reminiscences on working for President Reagan in this 2003 article in the Weekly Standard. His anecdotes on how Reagan combined human rights commitments with nuclear arms negotiations, and on Reagan's colorful relationship with Tip O'Neill are especially memorable.
A closing thought: Kampelman's bipartisanship was borne of principle. Because he shared common values with President Reagan on foreign policy, he was able to serve in the Reagan administration, even while holding to his own Democratic roots and no doubt maintaining numerous disagreements with Reagan on other areas of domestic and economic policy. In other words, bipartisanship should not be reduced to policy mush or personal opportunism. We have two parties for a reason, and partisan disagreements can just as often be a source of accountability and vitality in a democracy as they can be a cause of malaise. In that context, bipartisanship represents members of both parties finding common policy ground based on common principles, and a shared commitment to our nation.
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The back-to-back Senate testimonies of secretary of state nominee John Kerry and sitting Secretary Hillary Clinton served up quite a contrast: the former outlining the big policy ideas he intends to pursue; the latter delving into the details of bureaucratic information-dissemination and decision-making. There is an important lesson in this disparity: a secretary of state's legacy can depend just as much on management of the State Department as on foreign policy acumen.
America's foreign policy agenda has ballooned to encompass countless issues, many of which are little noticed domestically yet can consume enormous diplomatic effort for the U.S. government. The secretary of state is responsible for around 60,000 employees, hundreds of U.S. diplomatic missions, and a multi-billion dollar budget. It is inevitable that he will succeed or fail not merely on the strength of his personality or individual effort, but through the decisions and actions of those subordinate to him and often working at a vast distance from Washington.
Handed the responsibility for this sprawling diplomatic apparatus, it might be tempting for the new secretary of state to insulate himself within a loyal inner circle and leave management to others. This would be a serious error. It would likely exacerbate rather than ameliorate the management deficiencies identified by the recent Accountability Review Board (ARB), and lead to a disconnect between the secretary's personal diplomacy and the broader efforts of the State Department, weakening the efficacy of both. It would also limit the secretary's access to the enormous reservoir of talent found in the foreign and civil service, which can be a powerful instrument for American interests if provided with good leadership.
As he prepares to take the reins as America's top diplomat, Senator Kerry should therefore consider not just the foreign policy initiatives he will emphasize, but how to effectively manage the State Department to get the most out of U.S. diplomatic resources and ensure that he is aware not only of the issues on his agenda, but those not on his agenda which might take him by surprise. Doing so will not only help him to avert or at least defuse the next unforeseen crisis, but to identify and seize opportunities which might otherwise remain hidden.
To that end, Senator Kerry should consider the following steps:
1. Set priorities, and communicate them clearly. Only the secretary of state can cut through the miasma of issues, initiatives, dialogues, and summits which can shroud the State Department and set priorities for American diplomacy. The secretary's strategic guidance should not only outline his vision of American interests, but his vision of how the State Department is to pursue them.
The secretary's words and actions can make the difference between a culture in which problems are brought to the surface quickly and resolved head-on, and one in which they are swept under the rug. As in the case of both Iraq and Libya, reality frequently can clash with an administration's preferred narrative; American diplomats must feel empowered to make policy based on the former rather than the latter.
To be useful to diplomats in the field, such guidance must be both concise and realistic. Current planning documents do not fit the bill. State's Congressional Budget Justification is 853 pages, with a 174-page executive summary. Another document titled "State-USAID Agency Priority Goals for 2012-2013" is commendably brief, but many of the priorities it lists stand at odds with the reality of how U.S. officials spend their time and resources.
In the real world, strategic guidance must also be adaptive. The secretary cannot just set priorities and put the Department on cruise control; he should implement a process of regular (if informal) review with his senior staff to assess progress and make any necessary adaptations to his strategic guidance.
2. Empower your lieutenants. It is not enough to merely issue sound guidance, however; it must be enforced through lieutenants.
This means, first and foremost, appointing a personal staff which understands both the State Department and the secretary, and can serve as an effective liaison between the two. In practice, this means employing a combination of political appointees and talented Foreign Service officers (FSOs) in the secretary's staff. Including the latter is key; political appointees are often wary of career FSOs, but their familiarity with the quirks of State and experience in the field can help the secretary and other appointees navigate the bureaucracy and bring to their attention issues which might otherwise pass unnoticed.
Beyond the secretary's personal staff, it is important that the secretary have an empowered and trusted cabinet of assistant secretaries. Much of the heavy lifting in the State Department is done by assistant secretaries, especially those responsible for the geographic regions. The secretary should place top-caliber officials in these roles, regardless of whether they are career officials or political appointees, meet with them regularly and work through them, and hold them accountable for their portfolios.
Special attention should be paid to the Policy Planning office. The director and staff of Policy Planning should be foreign policy scholars willing and able to challenge policy orthodoxy and mine the broader analytical community for fresh ideas. In particular, they should be comfortable dealing with critics of the administration and its policies; while foreign policy experts in Washington may be increasingly partisan, foreign policy ideas should not be.
3. Declutter and Delayer the Bureaucracy. For assistant secretaries to be truly empowered, State needs to limit its use of special envoys to truly exceptional circumstances, and ensure clear lines of authority on key issues.
The overuse of special envoys increases the risk of a sort of diplomatic principal-agent problem. An envoy, with his focus on a single issue or conflict to which his professional fortunes are inextricably linked, has every incentive to prioritize it over issues which may have or develop a greater bearing on the national interest. On the flip side, the regional assistant secretary who has high-profile issues removed from his portfolio and handed to an envoy has correspondingly less influence with diplomatic counterparts and authority within the bureaucracy he oversees.
There are occasionally issues that call for the appointment of a special envoy -- for example, when a negotiation is ripe for resolution or an issue arises which demands sustained high-level attention or cuts across regional boundaries and might otherwise not receive the focus it deserves. Envoy positions should be rare, should complement rather than duplicate the existing chain of command, and should not be used merely to signal that an issue is important. And whether or not an envoy is employed, it should be clear to all who is in charge of and accountable for an issue.
Just as important as empowering assistant secretaries is empowering the rank-and-file and ensuring that the secretary has access to them and their expertise. As currently configured, there can be eight layers or more between the drafter of a memo and its ultimate recipient, the secretary -- and this figure does not even account for the numerous offices which must "clear" a memo before it even begins to ascend that chain. A savvy desk officer can circumvent much of this bureaucracy by cultivating the right contacts on the Department's seventh floor, but in doing so risks alienating colleagues alongside whom they will work far longer than they will serve any particular secretary of state.
The new secretary should remove some of these layers of bureaucracy. A flatter organizational structure would not only close the gap between him and the subject matter expertise he needs to be effective, but it would make those experts' jobs far more challenging and rewarding and likely raise both the morale and performance of the State Department as a whole.
4. Emphasize Training and Review the Foreign Service Business Model. Removing layers of the bureaucracy should not mean shrinking the Foreign Service, however -- it should be used as an opportunity to increase amount of training provided to FSOs. It's frequently observed that FSOs receive far less training over their careers than their military counterparts; what is less well known is that a significant portion of the training they do receive has little to do with statecraft and is instead consumed with language learning and management workshops. To address this, the new secretary should order a review of the courses offered by the Foreign Service Institute and ensure that it adequately prepares FSOs for the challenges they will face in the field. The average FSO has likely taken the Myers-Briggs assessment multiple times, but has had few or no opportunities to engage in serious study of diplomacy or international relations once in the Foreign Service.
In order to effectively craft and target an expanded training regimen, the secretary should consider undertaking a broader review of how the Foreign Service does business. The much-touted Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) begins with an image of a "jeep wind[ing] its way through a remote region of a developing country," carrying a "State Department diplomat with deep knowledge of the area's different ethnic groups."
In fact, however, the State Department does little to cultivate such individuals. Instead, State emphasizes a generalist model, which discourages the sort of deep specialization evoked in the QDDR. While the generalist approach is not without advantages, many FSOs would argue that increasing globalization -- the increasing travel of Washington-based officials, and the ease of direct communication between capitals, for example -- paradoxically puts a greater premium on specialization and deep local knowledge.
They would also argue that security is as much a matter of possessing a deep familiarity and understanding of a place as it is of physical measures such as barriers and bodyguards, and that worthwhile intelligence analysis requires not just technical collection and academic study but on-the-ground experience that allows one to connect seemingly disparate dots. The FSO's frustration is that often he or she is restricted to a diplomatic compound rather than permitted to venture out in that jeep, and armed not with "deep knowledge" but with brief preparation and a predecessor's rolodex.
Assuming he is confirmed, John Kerry will have a running start at being a successful secretary of state, armed both with the personal capabilities and human capital within State to do the job. But these elements -- the secretary and the bureaucracy he commands -- will not fall automatically into alignment. Avoiding the next diplomatic crisis -- and more importantly seizing the tremendous opportunities in America's path -- will require more than foreign policy virtuosity. It will require that the new secretary invest time and effort in the less glamorous but equally essential task of leading and managing.
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The weekend's reading in the Washington Post turned up two intriguing bits that could profitably be explored in Senator Hagel's forthcoming confirmation hearings. Neither is a game-changer or a show-stopper. I continue to believe he will be confirmed and I expect he will have plausible answers to both of these questions. But it would be revealing to hear those answers and the process of thinking them through might even help him be a better secretary of defense.
First, what does the Obama administration consider to be the necessary legal conditions for the use of force abroad? The question arises out of an interesting bit in Saturday's story about internal deliberations over whether and how much to assist the French in the Mali operation. There are numerous legal hurdles, including some domestic ones related to assisting governments after a coup (among its myriad troubles, Mali suffered a coup last year). But the part that interested me was this brief reference to other international legal hurdles:
"At the same time, U.S. officials were unsure whether they could legally aid France's military operations without a United Nations or other international mandate."
Now, I well understand the political desirability of international mandates, and I also know what the UN Charter stipulates. Since the Mali government asked for aid -- no, begged for aid -- the self-defense exception of the UN charter would seem to be easily met. Perhaps there was some legal confusion regarding whether a post-coup Mali regime was more legitimate than the militant islamists attacking the government from the north? Or perhaps there was something else at work, with the Obama administration entertaining a more stringent standard than U.S. governments had hitherto required for military action? If the latter, that would seem to be quite newsworthy with profound implications for coercive diplomacy in other settings: does the Obama administration believe it has the requisite legal predicate for military action in Iran (setting aside the policy wisdom of such action), or would it require a new and specific UNSCR or NATO authorization? What are legal options if we have neither a new UNSCR nor NATO authorization?
Second, what specifically did Senator Hagel find lacking about civilian control of the military during the past 6 years? This question arises out of a quote attributed to Hagel from today's opinion piece by Bob Woodward: "'The president has not had commander-in-chief control of the Pentagon since Bush senior was president,' Hagel said privately in 2011."
Now Hagel's quote covers a lot of history, including the stormy 1990s when serious questions were raised about the quality of civilian control. While an historical disquisition on the evolution of civilian control since 1992 from the secretary-nominee would be fascinating, for the sake of time and focus I would encourage the Senators to ask Hagel to answer just with respect to the last several years, covering the tenure of Secretaries Gates and Panetta. In what ways does Hagel consider the Pentagon to have been out of "commander-in-chief control" during that period?
This second question might be the more important one. After all, Hagel is not the lawyer who will be deciding the Obama administration's interpretation of international law. His hearings do provide an important opportunity for Congress to ask such questions to key officials under oath, however, so it is worth asking.
But the second question goes to the very heart of Hagel's job. As secretary of defense, he will be the interface between the political White House and the uniformed military -- something like the ball-bearings or even the grease in the ball-bearings of civil-military relations. He will be the single most important civilian working 24-7 on the civilian control issue. Understanding his theory of civil-military relations is crucial for helping the Pentagon (both civilian and military tribes therein) prepare for his arrival. And I can think of few better ways to clarify his expectations than for him to explain how he believes Gates and Panetta failed to bring the Pentagon under "commander-in-chief control."
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Is President Obama willing to hear from people who disagree with him? Is he capable of recognizing any merits in arguments from those on the other side? His most loyal staff assure us that he is, but the public record keeps piling up evidence to the contrary. Perhaps it is time for the president to consider some extra steps to ensure he is not trapped inside a bubble of groupthink.
When then-Senator Obama was first gaining prominence on the national stage, a friend of mine who had worked with him over many years assured me that Obama was particularly gifted at the art of "understanding the other." Obama, I was told, naturally, even reflexively, appreciated the arguments of all sides and was skilled at finding common ground -- finding the synthesis that did not do violence to either the thesis or the antithesis. Ever since my friend painted that portrait, I have been waiting for that Obama to show up in the Oval Office.
If that Obama exists, he did not seem to play much of a role in the inaugural speech-writing process. As Michael Gerson observed, Obama's second inaugural address was a "raging bonfire of straw men." For those of us hoping to recapture some of the consolations of pride-in and hope-for our American system that sustained us four years ago, this second inaugural had precious little to offer.
It is one thing to engage in such systematic distortion during a bitter electoral campaign. It is another thing to let it permeate through all of the presidential rhetoric, including speeches usually reserved for appeals to unity and common purpose.
Yet it is a third, and more worrying thing, if that same dysfunction distorts the advisory process. In that regard, Tom Ricks' reporting (here and here) on the treatment given General Mattis, the CENTCOM Commander, is especially disturbing. Ricks alleges that the White House hurried General Mattis into retirement because they resented the way he was asking probing questions that pointed to deficiencies in current policy.
Of course, it is the President's right to pick the advisors he wants, but shouldn't the President want to have advisors that ask tough, probing questions that flag deficiencies in current policy?
For the record, an Obama spokesman denied that Mattis was being moved along because of the way he provided advice, but even Ricks, a reliable Obama supporter, did not find the denial very convincing. There have been too many of these reports to dismiss this concern with a "nothing to see here" rebuttal: cf., Michael Gordon's account of how the White House sought to stifle military advice it did not want to hear; Rosa Brook's insider account, augmented by extensive additional reports, of a dysfunctional decisionmaking system that muzzled advisors; or then NSA-Jim Jones' infamous "whisky, tango, foxtrot" moment in Afghanistan when he apparently told the Marines not to request additional resources lest their request anger the President.
When I joined the Bush administration early in his second term, I joined a team that was similarly criticized as being "in a bubble" and incapable of understanding contrary viewpoints. Like Obama's current staffers, I could attest that that was not the system I saw from the inside. But unlike Obama's current staffers (so far as I can determine), we went beyond looking around the table and reassuring ourselves that we were each very reasonable fellows, fully open to new ideas. We put in place a series of informal institutions and procedures that brought us and White House principals, especially the president, into direct contact with the opposing views -- on paper and, crucially, in person. These ranged from academics (historians, political scientists, economists, etc.) to think-tank experts to key Democratic foreign policy advisors. Perhaps we should have done more of that than we did, and earlier, but I am pretty sure we did more of that than the Obama team has done thus far.
I do not doubt that Team Obama reads opinion pieces drafted by people who disagree with them. But do they engage those people in candid conversation and debate? Do they ensure that the president meets and converses with people who disagree with him? And are those people only critics from the left, or does he also regularly interact in a substantive way with critics from the right?
Perhaps it would be too disorienting at first to reach all the way across the aisle actually to engage the loyal opposition. An easier, but still worthwhile, step would be to reach out to avid supporters who nevertheless see some of the same things that are so obvious to folks on the other side. I am thinking here of Tom Ricks, mentioned above. Or what about other long-time Obama boosters like David Ignatius, who has called Obama "missing in action", and criticized Obama's "passivity" on Syria, and found the Inaugural Address "partisan" and "empty"? Or even Foreign Policy's own Dear Leader, David Rothkopf, who called Obama out for being a "lousy manager"?
Such interlocutors would be sure to sweeten the pill of truth-telling with ritual denunciations of the Bush era. But by drawing attention to Obama's own record, they might help the administration deal more honestly with the debate they face today. And they might even prepare the way for honest conversation across the spectrum of foreign policy views.
I think if Obama actually talked with people who disagreed with him, he would find it harder to sustain the straw-man caricatures of their views. Perhaps he would still end up policy-wise where he is today, but he would make more compelling arguments for those policies. He might even persuade some people he is right. It is a risk worth taking.
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President Obama's second inaugural address contained an admirable homage to some of the greatest heroes of civil and political rights. We are treated to a vision of the United States that is rooted in the ideals those heroes struggled to achieve. And we celebrate their victory, even if we are not all in agreement about how much progress has been made or how much remains to be done. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, America achieved what has made it truly "the last best hope of the Earth" as Lincoln put it and Reagan reiterated. The stains of second-class citizenship and institutionalized prejudice have been removed. There is always more to do to help people take greater advantage of their birthright of freedom, but the birthright is enshrined in law in a country where law rules, not men -- in theory and most of the time in practice.
But such is not the case in many countries of the world, a world where the United States must exist and because of its size and influence, lead. Fecklessness and timidity disguised as false humility won't do; we are expected to lead whether we are asked to or want to. So given this, we as citizens have a right and even a duty, I think, to ask if during the next four years the administration will base U.S. foreign policy on those same ideals. After all, if the character and reputation we have and want to keep is one of a beacon of democracy and a friend to it everywhere, then surely we are obligated to put actions to our words. The president made clear yesterday that as far as his domestic agenda is concerned, he will continue to insist on his understanding of what it means to be a country founded upon the ideals of freedom and equality, and that will mean a larger government and more spending on entitlements with the costs born by overburdened taxpayers and by debt. I don't agree with that approach, but that's not germane to this post. But what of his foreign policy agenda? Shouldn't he also in these matters take care to promote the ideals that he believes make us a great nation? Shouldn't we, can't we, do more than we have done in the last four years to stand by democrats in their struggles, wherever they may be found?
I have been saddened and even alarmed to look over the last four years of the Obama administration's policies and see that support for democracy in word and deed has often been pushed aside to make room for withdrawal and accommodation. For example, one of the greatest threats to liberty and equality the world over are the radical Islamic terrorists and their supporters and funders, but the president and his highest officials, while taking victory laps over bin Laden's takedown by Seal Team 6, campaigned as though this was a diminishing problem and that al Qaeda had been "decimated." The truth is that even as the campaign was winding down Benghazi exposed their assertions as flawed. We know that al Qaeda is not only still powerful but thriving in North Africa and beyond. We stand by as the French take the lead in saving Mali, literally, from an al Qaeda takeover. That's right, the French. But then France has never been slow to assert itself where national interests are at stake. We could take a lesson from them.
And there are other examples where the administration has not taken care to secure our interests, such as its refusal to treat Russia as a bad actor where democracy is concerned and a supporter of those who share its authoritarian bent. Or Venezuela, where a dictator has been allowed to ruin his country, try to ruin others in the region and coddle and comfort our worst enemies with little resistance from us.
Let me tie two concepts together that I have been discussing and make this assertion: support for democracy is in our national interest. I'm glad the president said so yesterday in his second inaugural address. I just wish he'd say it more often and do something more concrete about it in the next four years.
A nation like ours cannot do other than promote democracy and support democrats. It is in our DNA and it is the only way our foreign policy can make sense. Our failure to do so from time to time is the exception that proves the rule. Why else is it noteworthy when we fail to do so? It is one of the reasons we are an exceptional nation.
Support for democracy and democrats means giving voice to our ideals and to take action to support those who share our ideals. We should never fail to talk about liberty and rights with all states who deny them to their citizens. Freedom House's latest report is a useful guide for knowing how to address these issues and with which countries. And we should take action, such as providing resources of various kinds to those men and women who ask for our help. Some of them are so oppressed that they need succor just to go on living; some need support because they are in a position to actually change their country for the better. Think of it as supporting both "hope and change."
Notice I said nothing about imposing democracy or nation-building; these are canards used by those who opposed the Iraq war or who deny our leadership role by hiding behind "state sovereignty" claims. In my years as a government official we never once imposed democracy on any country; it can't be done. What we did, what the United Nations and Europe and the Japanese and the Indians and many others have done, is to provide aid to people in dictatorships or failing states who asked for our help. Sometimes they are the majority of a country; sometimes they are the minority. Pointing out the objections of a dictator who murders and abuses his people and who is very often a disturber of the peace of his region or the world provides no excuse to deny help to his victims when we can. What legitimacy does such a dictator have to object to his would-be slaves asking free peoples to help them be free? By what right does he block the free world from trying to encourage the establishment of more free states, which is in their interest?
A world made up mostly of states where rights are respected and the law rules is surely in our interests as these states are less likely to be in serious conflict with states like them. It might take years or generations, but we should try, nonetheless.
And there are two more reasons to try. First, dictators vexed by dissidents at home are weakened. It is in our interests to make tyrants as miserable as we can; we have plenty of resources and agencies who can do this work. History has many lessons on this. It is a shame so many oppressors and enemies of freedom feel more secure today to work their wicked will at home and abroad than four years ago, especially all those whose behavior we can influence. Second, it makes no sense to hope for the day when a tyrant falls but to have done nothing to help the lovers of freedom be ready to take over. We learned a hard lesson in Egypt: Mubarak spent 30 years squelching the democratic opposition and thereby fulfilling his own prophecy that "it's me or the Brotherhood." We could have done more in Egypt.
I would like to take the president at his word yesterday when he made his single comment about supporting freedom around the world. I did not expect his second inaugural address to be like President George W. Bush's, but I'm glad at least that he mentioned it. And I will hope that he does more. There are many fine people both in the ranks of the political appointees and in the foreign and civil services who want to help democrats around the world, even if there are many who do not. He's the boss, he can have his way if he'll lead. He has an army ready to implement good programs that directly support -- dare I say it -- a freedom agenda.
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As I write this, the news is still fragmentary and unfolding concerning the Algerian hostage situation following France's military intervention in Mali and effort to arrest the territorial gains made by the jihadists. However this latest crisis plays out, events thus far seem to expose several of the Obama administration's strategic deficiencies, including:
Premature declaration of victory over al Qaeda. As if we needed yet another reminder, the White House's past declarations of looming victory against "core al Qaeda" were woefully premature. This is most costly not as a public relations blunder but as a strategic blunder; when an administration's leadership signals a change in strategic priorities, the rest of the national security apparatus shifts accordingly. Such a premature spiking of the ball seems to have influenced the administration's mishandling of the Benghazi consulate attack, and now seems to have caused a corresponding neglect of Mali. Yet Mali may be emerging as just the latest front in the war, as Peter Chilson points out the bracing fact that "Northern Mali is currently the largest al Qaeda-controlled space in the world."
The shifting fissures and fusions of various jihadist groups, a kaleidoscopic combination of local grievances and global aspirations, should not obscure that in the minds of the terrorists there is in part an international and universal dimension to their campaign. Terrorist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar's reported demand that the U.S. release the "blind sheikh" Omar Abdel-Rahman, imprisoned for his role in masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is just one example of their grievances towards America. Whether or not the al Qaeda branch in northern Mali is ever able to stage an attack against the continental United States, its hostage operation against the Algerian gas field installation shows a capability and willingness to target U.S. interests and allies (such as the French, British, and Japanese employees). That alone should justify a more vigorous American response than the Obama administration has thus far marshaled.
Leading from behind. An Obama administration official first proudly described the White House's multilateral strategy as "leading from behind" in the context of the Libya intervention. What might have sounded good then does not sound so good now, as unfortunately the Mali chaos emanates directly from the Libya spillover, and the corresponding failure to engage in an effective post-conflict stabilization operation. Now the latest chapter of "leading from behind" has the French intervening in Mali while the U.S. sits on the sidelines. This has the effect of further annoying important NATO allies while ceding leverage and initiative to the jihadists. The U.S. admittedly has limited resources and bandwidth to bring to bear here, so I am not making the simplistic argument that an earlier full-scale American intervention would have been easy or solved the problems besetting Mali. But while the downsides of excessive involvement are well-known, the ongoing crisis shows in turn the downsides of dogmatic passivity.
Anemic religious freedom policy. Six months ago I wrote about Mali and made the point that violations of religious freedom are often a leading indicator of a looming security threat (an argument later elaborated here). As I said at the time:
"One worrisome indicator is the jihadists' destruction of traditional Muslim burial grounds and other iconic sites, a sign of the vicious religious intolerance that militant Islamists show towards other Muslims, let alone believers in non-Islamic faiths ... This campaign of religious intolerance may be an early warning indicator of a looming security threat, particularly if northern Mali becomes a terrorist safe-haven and magnet for jihadists planning attacks on the West ... at a minimum, American counterterrorism and religious-freedom policymakers should be watching Mali closely, and talking to each other. In the case of Mali, their concerns may be more aligned then they realize."
Unfortunately the Mali situation is just the latest indicator that the Obama administration still has not made religious freedom policy a priority, either as a value in its own right or as a strategic interest. From that time six months ago, conditions only worsened in Mali as the jihadists began imposing their perverse version of Islamic law. If the Obama administration had been paying more attention to religious liberty deteriorations, it would not have been as surprised at Mali's perilous straits.
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For the past several years, I have been writing the blogging equivalent of a requiem for the passing of the "war of necessity vs. war of choice" rhetorical device (see here, here, here, here, and here).
This rhetorical device was patented by Richard Haass but wielded to good political effect by Team Obama in the earliest days of their tenure. The device overlaid the familiar but subjective "good war vs. bad war" template with another one that had the appearance of objectivity: the template of necessity. Some wars, it was argued, were so obviously right that they had to be fought. By contrast, other wars were so dubious they were practically frivolous flights of fancy.
The rhetorical device was flawed as a basis for analysis. It turned out "wars of necessity" (like Desert Storm) were hotly debated at the time with people of good will disagreeing as to how necessary they really were. They were, in other words, choices every bit as tough as the wars denounced as wars of choice. But as a political club for beating opponents, the framework served Obama's purposes nicely -- at least in 2009.
Back then, Obama argued that Afghanistan was a war of necessity -- unlike the war of choice (read: frivolous, stupid, pointless) in Iraq. Countries should win wars of necessity and end wars of choice. Ergo: surge in Afghanistan and abandon Iraq. Back then, the war in Afghanistan was popular and the war in Iraq was not, so the framework nicely provided a national interest rationale for doing what seemed politically expedient.
Of course, today both wars are unpopular and as the tide of public support ebbed away, so too did talk about the necessity of fighting and prevailing in Afghanistan. Last weekend's meetings between President Obama and President Karzai dramatically underscored how far the Obama Team has left the "war of necessity" frame in its rear-view mirror, as Kori Schake's excellent analysis shows.
It turns out, President Obama believes we can end a war of necessity much the same way he ended a war of choice: by leaving and letting the locals sort it out for themselves. That has not worked out well in Iraq, and the prospects of it working well in Afghanistan seem even more remote. (For what it is worth, it also hasn't worked too well in the "war of choice" that Obama chose to initiate: Libya.)
But walking away from a "war of necessity" might last for a decent interval, long enough for Obama to ponder the many potential "wars of choice" that darken his horizon, from Mali to Syria to Iran to North Korea.
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I was in Arizona on 9/11. I was in the Army at the time, doing a summer of training at Fort Huachuca. Someone told us as we milled about after morning class that there was some kind of attack in New York. By the time we got to lunch there were wild rumors about how many bombs had gone off and how many planes were in the air. They cancelled afternoon class and we watched news the rest of the day, forty or fifty soldiers crowded into a small common room. We turned the TV on just in time to see the second tower collapse on live TV. I will never forget the gasps, the anger, and the profanities that filled the room as we watched.
I have no idea if you will like Zero Dark Thirty (2012). The film is too close to home for me to watch like a regular movie. I served in Afghanistan with the Army in 2002. I served in the CIA as an analyst in the Office of South Asian Analysis from 2003 to 2007. I worked in the White House as Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2007 to 2009. My entire career has been defined by 9/11 and the aftermath. I have such a deep personal stake in it that when I heard someone was making this movie, I felt, at first, violated.
Watching the movie was all the more personal and unsettling because of one particular violent scene. I am not normally squeamish about movie violence -- I love the Alien franchise -- but it took a few years after serving in Afghanistan before I could watch war movies again. It seemed weird and disrespectful to watch real-life horror as entertainment. That sense was magnified infinitely during one scene in Zero Dark Thirty in which a fictional suicide bomber pretends to blow himself up, we see a special-effects explosion, and we see a half-dozen actors pretend to die.
The scene is based on a true incident -- an attack on a CIA forward operating base in Khowst in December 2009. The incident was so devastating to the CIA that the President released a statement and CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote an oped in The Washington Post.
A friend of mine was there. I attended his funeral and met his widow.
Watching this movie made me both sad and angry. Not angry at Kathryn Bigelow or Columbia Pictures. I would have been if she had made a cheap and splashy film that exploited 9/11, my friend's death, and the bin Laden raid as blockbuster fare. This movie, if made by Michael Bay, would have been disgusting.
But Bigelow has made a sensitive and respectful film, one that honors the people who lived its story. I told my wife after seeing Bigelow's previous, Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker (2009), that it was the most faithful depiction of soldiers' lives in a modern combat zone I'd ever seen. I felt honored that someone took the time to tell our story, the story of a million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to tell it right.
Similarly, Zero Dark Thirty tells the stories of the countless soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, CIA officers, intelligence professionals, and special forces who have spent a decade hunting not just bin Laden, but all of al Qaeda and its murderous allies around the world. It is the most accurate depiction of intelligence work I've ever seen in a movie -- the painstaking detective work, the frustration, the dead-ends, the bureaucracy, the uncertainty, and the sudden life-or-death stakes. There isn't the slightest hint of James Bond or Jason Bourne here: even the SEAL Team Six raid is done slowly, methodically, with more professionalism than flare. If this were pure fiction, no one would see it because it would be too dull. Bigelow resists the urge to sensationalize, and in so doing she elevates the material and demands that we pay attention to, and think carefully about, what we are watching.
Good art tells stories, provides catharsis, shows how individual lives make up a broader story, teaches and educates, holds up a mirror for us and let us decide if we like what we see or not. That requires, of course, that we approach art with a sense of responsibility. We only hear what it is saying if we are listening for it and are willing to think carefully about it. Art demands an active viewer, listener, or reader; and it demands a response. Otherwise it is just images and sound --"sound and fury"-- that we pass before our senses to pass the time. Watching Zero Dark Thirty that way would be disrespectful, and wrong.
The right response to this film is not anger at the filmmakers. It is, first, anger about 9/11, the wars, the death, and, for me, the casual ignorance among the vast majority of the population about the sacrifices borne by a tiny handful of heroes. I was angry most of all at al Qaeda, at Osama bin Laden and his hateful jihad, at Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi for murdering my friend. But the anger is muted by a pervading sadness: Zero Dark Thirty is a profoundly melancholy, grim film.
Another response is to think carefully about the nature of war. Some critics claim Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture for showing American personnel getting valuable information from detainees after waterboarding them and treating them roughly. Another, more experienced ex-CIA officer has criticized the movie for its inaccurate portrayal of the "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Several United States Senators weighed in to say the movie is inaccurate, which is a compliment of sorts. They hadn't bothered to comment on the accuracy of depicting Congress as full of stupid, slavery-loving crooks in Lincoln, after all.
The critics and the Senate are missing the point of historical dramatization. In the ten-year hunt for bin Laden, the United States did stuff, hard stuff, controversial stuff that was maybe on (or over) the line between right and wrong. Waterboarding, for better or worse, has become the most recognizable symbol of all that stuff. Bigelow's decision to include a scene of waterboarding in the movie is an accurate dramatization that the U.S. did stuff like that. If waterboarding itself did not literally provide the crucial link in the hunt for bin Laden, I am absolutely certain that some of the stuff the United States did after 9/11 has been instrumental in preventing another 9/11 and keeping al-Qaida on the run.
Let me say that again. With all the weight of ten years of work in the Army, the CIA, and the White House, I am absolutely certain that there would have been at least one, if not more, successful, large-scale terrorist attacks on the United States without the "gloves-off" measures used in the last decade.
Is that just? Leaving aside nuance, let's just ask it straight: are torture and assassination permissible tools of self-defense? Ultimately, the movie does not provide an answer, and I won't presume to offer a definitive solution in a movie review. On the one hand, the moral foundation of government is to defend its citizens and uphold order. A government that fails in its first duty is not worthy of the name. Paul writes in Romans 13 that the ruler "does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer." If the death penalty is justified, and I believe it is, then so is hunting down and executing a war criminal. And if we can kill some, then we can certainly rough up others in the pursuit of good information about them.
On the other hand, Paul writes in Romans 12 "‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." And we know that every human being has inherent dignity and worth in the sight of God as a creature made in his image. Maybe there are some things -- acts of revenge or humiliation -- that governments should not do under any circumstances. Perhaps the very same act -- like using an "enhanced interrogation" technique -- is an obligatory act of self-defense and a damnable act of revenge at the same time for different people, depending on the state of their hearts. I confess after more than ten years I am less sure about these issues than ever.
Bigelow's film, by refusing to editorialize or tell its audience what to think about these questions, compels us to ask and answer them ourselves. In this sense it is fundamentally different than the other great post-9/11 film about terrorism, Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005), which ends on a preachy note with one character telling another that "there is no peace at the end of this."
The bulk of Zero Dark Thirty is a very good spy thriller. It ends, as we all know, as a war movie. The final sequence (this is not a spoiler unless you've been living in a cave), showing SEAL Team Six's assault on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, called to my mind the St. Crispin's Day speech in Shakespeare's Henry V:
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and spy -- and a good swath of the American population -- woke up on May 2, 2011, heard the news, and wished they had been there in Abbottabad. Zero Dark Thirty gives us the vicarious experience of having been there. Bigelow wisely underplays the climactic moment -- even refusing to show bin Laden on camera -- lest it degenerate into a Tarantino revenge fantasy. Even so, I confess it was gratifying. The finale offers a national catharsis after a decade of frustration.
I recognize how bloodthirsty that sounds. But I don't think bloodlust is the only danger, or even the biggest danger, in relishing the climax of Zero Dark Thirty. Read the Psalms again and note how often David rejoices over his enemies' defeat. We spiritualize too much if we think these Psalms only apply to the "enemy" of temptation, or sin, or the devil. Sometimes we have actual human enemies who want to kill us, and defeating them is good. No man's death is occasion for a party -- the celebrations on the National Mall were unseemly -- but as I told my students the next morning, justice is good, and sobering.
No, a bigger danger, perhaps, is in cheapening the sacrifice, risk, and work of those who were actually, not vicariously, involved in the hunt. Some viewers will enjoy a fleeting and shallow sense of pride and pleasure before moving on with life. It may feel gratifying to watch it happen on screen, but take a moment to recognize that you didn't really do anything to make it happen. Watch and enjoy Zero Dark Thirty -- it is a very good movie -- but don't treat it like a cheap thrill.
In the closing months of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called on the nation in his Second Inaugural "to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." Here's an idea for a responsible approach to Zero Dark Thirty. Watch the movie, then donate the equivalent of your movie ticket, if not more, to the CIA Officer's Memorial Foundation. The Foundation provides educational support to the children of CIA officers killed in the line of duty. My friend left behind three of them.
Note: this blog entry was originally posted at Patheos.com.
Jonathan Olley – © 2012 - Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
Late last week key officials within the Obama administration announced a potential new limit for troops that will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 (when the vast majority of the current 40,000 will have been removed). That number-- 2,500-6,000 total -- is far less than the 30,000 that the administration stated just two years ago was the minimum necessary to carry out counter-terrorism tasks in the country.
What has happened to justify this radical shift in policy? I would argue that three key conclusions about Afghanistan have coalesced in the thinking of policy makers since 2010 and have pushed the administration to reconsider its vision for the war.
1. Afghanistan as Vietnam
Perhaps most importantly, administration officials have concluded that Afghanistan is Vietnam: an eternal, unwinnable war that will only drag them and the country down with it if they continue to invest in the conflict.
There are, however, significant differences between the two wars. First and foremost, unlike in Vietnam, there is a clear military and political way forward in Afghanistan. From its success in Iraq, the U.S. military learned how to fight and win these sorts of irregular conflicts. This comes as no surprise to historians, who know that the U.S. military has won every irregular war that it was fought except for Vietnam. This includes three guerrilla wars in the Philippines and a series of irregular fights in Latin America. Politically, the U.S. learned from President Kennedy's disastrous support for the overthrow of Diem and has supported (however reluctantly) a leader who is recognized as legitimate by most Afghans. And unlike Vietnam, Afghans generally do not want a strong, centralized government that will provide a multitude of services, but rather prefer one that provides general security and leaves local issues to local leaders. This makes a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan far more likely than it ever could be in Vietnam after 1963.
The second way that these wars differ radically is the stakes, which are far higher in Afghanistan than in Vietnam. Kennedy and Johnson, unlike Eisenhower, were convinced that Vietnam was an existential issue that had to be fought and won for the safety and security of the free world. Subsequent events would show that Vietnamese leaders were just as much nationalists as they were communists, and that they had no intention of working to undermine the free world. The war in Afghanistan, however, began with a devastating attack on the American homeland and the group that carried out this strike will return to their safe-haven to plot and plan further attacks as soon as we leave. Winning the war in Afghanistan is precisely about our own safety and preventing the death of Americans.
Two historians of Vietnam have aided and abetted in this dangerous analogy-building: Gordon Goldstein and Robert Caro. Goldstein's writing has pushed the President to conclude that LBJ's mistake in Vietnam was not withdrawing early -- regardless of the consequences in SE Asia and around the Cold War world -- and Robert Caro's work argues that LBJ's involvement in the war destroyed his domestic achievements. Both of these analogies have been accepted by at least some within this administration as object lessons for the current situation that can be, apparently, applied without critical thought about the dangers of analogies for decision making at the highest policy levels.
2. The Military Is Untrustworthy
Perhaps due to a seminal event in 2009 -- the leaking of McChrystal's strategy for fighting the war -- administration officials have concluded that, as with the army in Vietnam, today's military cannot be trusted. To save face in an unwinnable war, the military will always request more troops and more money. Beginning with the "surge" that year, every request for troops by the commanders who know the most about the situation in Afghanistan has been treated with skepticism and cut considerably by this administration. This was done without taking into consideration conditions on the ground, but perhaps it seemed necessary to demonstrate to the military that civilian control had to be respected.
The result, however, has been disastrous for Afghanistan, where the lack of sufficient troops prevented a full counter-insurgency from being implemented and the withdrawal of forces will allow the Taliban and al Qaeda to return unimpeded to the East and South of the country. Without more troops, the U.S. will not even be able to carry out the minimal strategy that this administration has itself argued is necessary to prevent another attack on the U.S.
3. A Shift in Objectives
Some part of this disregard for the advice of the military is due to vast changes in strategy. When President Obama was campaigning for office in 2008, he argued that the U.S. had to withdraw from Iraq and focus on winning the war in Afghanistan -- where the U.S. faced a real threat from al Qaeda. Once in office, he held two policy reviews to elaborate the right strategy for confronting al Qaeda and achieving success in Afghanistan. The path forward that he chose was a counterinsurgency that would defeat the Taliban and secure the population of the South and East of the country.
Not long afterward, a change in objectives for the war was announced: rather than defeating the Taliban, the administration supported a negotiated settlement with the group through a process called "reconciliation." In addition, the military objective later shifted from a full COIN to something called "CT Plus," which would focus solely on killing al Qaeda members and disrupting the ability of the group to plot and plan. CT Plus would require far fewer forces than a COIN (around 30,000 was seen as the minimum to stay after 2014).
What then has justified the proposed change from 30,000 to perhaps 2,500? Once again objectives have changed -- in this case from CT Plus to something even less: just holding one or two bases in the country. With so few troops, the U.S. will not be able to carry out CT missions, and if just two bases are held, much of the East and South will be out of reach for strikes on Taliban and al-Qa'ida leadership. This change in objectives in fact guarantees that Afghanistan will once again become a safe-haven for AQ and a base for the group to plot and plan and carry out attacks on the U.S.
Perhaps there is a Vietnam analogy that suits this situation, but one provided by the French and not the U.S. experience: Dien Bien Phu. Trapped in a mindset that believed only attrition could defeat the Viet Minh guerrilla army, the French chose to move several thousand troops to an isolated garrison with poor lines of communications at a place called Dien Bien Phu. The troops could not be easily reinforced or resupplied, and came under heavy artillery fire from the Viet Minh forces. Eventually the entire garrison was forced to surrender under humiliating circumstances and France withdrew from all of SE Asia.
Any force less than 15,000 risks precisely this outcome in the isolated battlefield of Afghanistan, which might explain why the administration has been talking about withdrawing completely and ceding the entire country -- as it has Syria, Mali, and Libya -- to al Qaeda.
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As Eliot Cohen rightly pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed, there is no correlation between military service and effectiveness as a senior government official. Cohen noted that neither Lincoln nor FDR had significant military experience, yet were great war leaders. One might add that Churchill's military experience in the Boer War had little to do with his later leadership of the military, except perhaps to convince him that he knew more than his generals, which no doubt was a factor in his urging the disastrous Gallipoli operation in World War I and his constant clashes with Alan Brooke, chief of the defense staff, in World War II. And then there is Jimmy Carter, whose naval background did not mitigate his mediocre performance as commander in chief during the immediate post-Vietnam era.
Chuck Hagel's ultimate record as SecDef likewise will have little to do with his service in Vietnam, distinguished though it was. If confirmed, Hagel will face some very tough challenges, even if the dreaded sequester does not come to pass, and it is on the basis of how he addresses those challenges, rather than his previous war record, that his performance as secretary will be judged.
It is all but certain that the cost of avoiding a sequester will be some level of additional defense cuts, beyond those already enshrined in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which called for $487 billion in cuts over a 10-year period. These additional cuts could amount to some $15 billion, perhaps more. Hagel will have to decide where those cuts will be taken.
Hagel has asserted that the Pentagon budget is bloated, but has not explained exactly what he means. The administration has already signaled that it wishes to protect the personnel accounts, even if the sequester were to come into force, despite the fact that those accounts have been steadily eating into available resources for operations, research, and procurement. Will Hagel at least try to push for limits on the growth of the Defense Health Program, which is approaching an annual cost of $60 billion? He has said little on the subject and would have to face a Congress that has resisted any real changes to health benefits for the military and their families. Will Hagel throw his weight behind the new commission on military compensation and retirement, which will address not only the health program, but the entire gamut of military benefits? Again, his position on the commission is unknown.
Many analysts are assuming that Hagel really intends to reduce the size of the DOD acquisition accounts. He has not indicated which accounts might be his target. With its announcement of a "pivot" to Asia and with instability roiling the Middle East, the DOD will already be hard-pressed to meet its commitments in both of those vast regions. Will Hagel nevertheless seek to further shrink the Navy and Air Force, likely to be the most active and visible services in both areas? Would that mean a significantly smaller carrier force and the cancellation of the program for a new manned long-range bomber? Will he attempt to further reduce the size of the Army? As chairman of the board of the Atlantic Council, Hagel has been especially sensitive to relations with Europe, yet the administration has announced plans to reduce land-force presence in Europe by two brigades. Will Hagel seek to reverse that decision? And will Hagel realize Russian President Vladimir Putin's dream by drastically curtailing the U.S. missile defense program at a time when America's allies have finally come to realize its importance?
Finally, would a Secretary Hagel opt for a complete withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, which most observers feel would at best prompt a renewal of the civil war that only ended with the American response to the 9/11 bombings, and at worst hand it right back to the Taliban?
The foregoing are the known issues that a new secretary of defense will have to face. Then there are the "unknown unknowns" that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld frequently cited. He knew of what he spoke: On Sept. 10, 2001, Rumsfeld told his Pentagon staff that the biggest challenge to the Defense Department was its own cumbersome management system. A day later he, and all of America, were confronted by a far greater challenge that has yet to be overcome.
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Even as Venezuela plunges into a constitutional crisis over Hugo Chávez's missed inauguration yesterday, State Department officials evidently think its still an ideal time to continue pressing for a normalization of diplomatic relations with the Venezuelan government, whoever that may be.
Ever since my colleague, former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, disclosed last month (and at Foreign Policy here) that high-ranking department officials had begun discrete talks about exchanging ambassadors with Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro and Venezuelan Organization of American States Ambassador Roy Chaderton in November, department officials have begun to speak openly (here and here) about the effort and have shown no indication that recent events in Venezuela have dampened their enthusiasm.
Indeed, they have even doubled down on it and are now presenting their overtures as a way to get ahead of the post-Chávez curve, given the increasing likelihood that the firebrand populist will never return to power. That way, in the words of the Washington Post, they "can engage Caracas on a variety of concerns the State Department has had about the Venezuelan government's policies."
One wonders then what the rationale was in November for seeking to normalize relations, since Chávez was his usual bombastic self and showed no signs of the severity of his illness. (He soon decamped to Cuba for his reported fourth surgery for cancer and hasn't been seen or heard from since December 8th.)
In any case, the idea of unconditionally restoring diplomatic ties with the Chávez government in November is troubling enough; today, it is simply inexplicable.
As has been widely reported, Chávez missed his inauguration this week, which means, according to the Venezuelan constitution, that his current presidential term has ended. Since he was not sworn in for his new term, power is then turned over to the elected head of the National Assembly. However, the Chávez-packed Supreme Court ruled that he is still president and that his inauguration can be postponed indefinitely. That means the nominal head of government in Venezuela is Chávez's hand-picked vice president and heir, the unelected Nicolas Maduro.
But Venezuela's democratic opposition is protesting this usurpation of the constitutional process and maintaining that the head of government is the head of the legislature, Diosdado Cabello, another Chávez crony. Yet complicating matters further is that both Maduro and Cabello head different factions within Chavismo that will likely vie for power once Chávez is gone.
Is this really the most appealing scenario to attempt to restore diplomatic relations with a country that has been so radicalized, de-institutionalized, and polarized under more than a decade of Hugo Chávez? One thinks not.
No one doubts the administration's concern with Venezuela's alliances with international rogues like Iran and Syria, its complicity with narco-trafficking through its territory, and its unhelpful stance on Colombia's war against narco-terrorism, but to expect any diplomatic progress on those issues while Venezuelans aren't even sure who will be in power when they wake up in the morning is simply folly.
The administration would do better to immediately suspend overtures to Venezuelan officials, allow the uncertain transition process to play out, and support the opposition's calls for an open, transparent, and constitutional resolution to the crisis -- as well as a clean and transparent election when Chávez succumbs to cancer. Moreover, the department will soon have a new Secretary of State, presumably John Kerry. By the time he and his team are in the building the more likely it will be that they have a better understanding of who is in charge in Venezuela, and whether the environment is more inviting to attempt to make real progress with Chávez's successors on those issues that are important to U.S. security.
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In December 1939, as World War II began to convulse Europe and the public debate accelerated in the United States over whether America would enter the war, the new Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall gave an address to the American Historical Association. Reflecting on the role of history in national security, Marshall observed that "it is to the historian ... that we must turn for the most essential service in determining the public policy relating to national defense." Lest this sound like Marshall was merely flattering his audience of history professors -- we academics are notoriously susceptible to hearing about our own importance, after all -- Marshall then excoriated the assembled historians for writing books that were unduly celebratory of American history, and thus had offered little genuine insight. Specifically, he charged historians with abdication of duty by telling only of America's previous victories in wars, while ignoring the many past mistakes that had unduly prolonged past wars, or left the United States vulnerable and susceptible to defeat. As his nation once again faced the prospect of war unprepared, Marshall worried that "if we are to have a sound organization for war we must first have better school histories and a better technique for teaching history."
Many policymakers today would share Marshall's concern that too few academic historians are producing history that is useful for national security policy. Although to oversimplify the problem, it is now nearly the opposite from Marshall's time. Very little of academic history today focuses on matters of war and diplomacy, and for academic historians a contemporary cardinal sin is to write "celebratory" history (or its related iniquities of "triumphalist" or "Whiggish" history). If anything, many historians are perhaps now gratuitously critical of the American past.
History at its best should of course avoid the twin distortions of either cheerleading or sneering at the past, and instead should work to ascertain the truth about the past in all of its complexities, vanities, and virtues. And while not all fields of history should aspire to the potential seductions of "policy relevance," the responsibilities of citizenship and the realities of the past suggest that history holds rich insights for foreign policy today. General Marshall was not the only one to think so; a pantheon of other Cold War policymakers, such as Kennan, Kissinger, Acheson, Truman, and Eisenhower looked to history as well, as have many of their contemporary successors.
Inspired by the spirit of Marshall's admonition, yesterday the University of Texas-Austin announced the creation of the Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft. The Clements Center (which in full disclosure I will direct) will be designed to support teaching and research in diplomatic, military, and international history and its relevance for national security policy. In the coming months we will be announcing a number of programs and initiatives; aspiring graduate students and post-docs especially might want to keep us in mind.
The life and career of the Center's namesake, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Clements, exemplifies an appreciation for history's bearing on statecraft. An avid reader of history, Clements served at the Pentagon from 1973-77 under presidents Nixon and Ford, and he stewarded American defense policy during a perilous period when the U.S. was a diminishing power. Yet mindful of the "long view" that history cultivates, during these years of managing decline, Clements oversaw the development of new weapons platforms such as the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, M-1 Abrams tank, Aegis cruiser, and Tomahawk cruise missile, that would form much of the backbone of American force projection for the next four decades. He also worked with Kissinger and others to recalibrate America's strategic posture in regions such as the Middle East. In our current era of debate over the defense budget and American decline, this is a history that merits attention.
Is it possible that the debate and vote on Senator Hagel's confirmation for secretary of defense will be the closest the Senate comes to a debate and vote on the use of force in Iran? As the administration showed on Libya, President Obama believes he can use military force without a prior congressional vote. The administration would be very wary about asking for something it is not absolutely certain it could get, and it would have to be very uncertain of winning such an "authorization to use military force in Iran" vote. Accordingly, it is likely that, if it ever came to it, the Obama administration might believe it must use military force against Iran's nuclear program without the kind of lengthy and contentious congressional debate that preceded the 2003 Iraq war and the 1991 Iraq war.
If my speculations are correct thus far -- a big if, I realize -- then a further, ironic speculation may also be correct: a vote for Hagel may be a vote against the use of force in Iran.
Let's stipulate up front that hawks and doves alike would prefer a negotiated solution with Iran in which Iran verifiably abandoned its nuclear ambitions. The debate between hawks and doves is not a debate between those who think the use of force would be swell and those who know it would not be. It is rather a debate between hawks who think that the "unswell" military option is preferable to learning to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon (and/or accepting a hitherto unacceptable negotiated deal that could not be prevented from devolving into "learning to live with an Iranian nuclear weapons") and doves who think that it is preferable to learn to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon than to resort to force.
Officially, the Obama administration's policy is, by this metric, hawkish. So far as I can determine, Senator Hagel's position has been dovish and has remained dovish.
Hawks and doves differ on one further question: why haven't we been able to get a negotiated solution with Iran thus far? Doves say the reason is that the United States has hitherto botched diplomacy by rejecting legitimate Iranian overtures, failing to adequately negotiate face-to-face, having too many sticks and not enough carrots in the mix, and over-relying on unilateral sanctions; more creative diplomacy from the United States should be able to open up an acceptable deal. Hawks say the reason is that hitherto Iran has not experienced enough pain to be willing to concede on key issues and so the key is to ratchet up the coercive element of coercive diplomacy (whilst keeping the diplomatic element alive as well) until Iran makes the requisite concessions.
Officially, the Obama 2008 campaign was dovish by this metric but the Administration has moved towards the hawkish pole over the past several years. So far as I can determine, Senator Hagel's position has been dovish and has remained dovish.
If you were President Obama and you were in fact still hawkish -- i.e. you believed you might need to use military force -- why would you nominate the dovish Hagel?
One possibility -- call it the "Nixon to China" possibility -- is that a hawkish Obama is nominating a dovish Hagel because only a dove like Hagel could persuade reluctant doves in Congress, in the Pentagon, and in the broader public to support military action on Iran, should it ever come to it (which, I am sure, Obama devoutly hopes it never will). Likewise, only a dove like Hagel could convince skeptics that the Obama administration has done everything it can on the negotiations front and that no further U.S. concessions are warranted. That might be Obama's calculation, but this would be a grave risk to take. Senator Hagel earned his prominence by being an iconoclast, by breaking with his president, by sticking to his anti-interventionist instincts even when it might have seemed disloyal to do so. Such a maverick would be more likely to break with the hawkish Obama when push came to shove than to blot his military copybook by supporting military action on Iran. I can't rule it out, but I think the "Nixon to China" interpretation is the wrong one.
A more likely possibility is that Obama is in fact dovish, despite what the official policy says. That is, I think it is possible that when push comes to shove President Obama may believe it would be preferable to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon (or a bad deal that was tantamount to that) than to use military force. He may also believe that the administration has migrated as far to the hawkish pole on the question of how to structure negotiations with Iran as is wise, and that it is time to try more dovish approaches to negotiations. An Obama that is a dove-in-hawk's-feathers would find a Secretary Hagel fully in harmony with his views.
There is a lot of tea-leaf-reading in the foregoing, in part because Sen. Hagel has not been pinned down on his current views on Iran and the crucial question about which is worse, living with an Iranian nuclear weapon or resorting to force. I expect that to be one of the main foci of the confirmation hearings. And I expect the debate those questions and answers engender to be one of the liveliest debates the political establishment has had to date on the Iran issue.
Which means that Hagel's confirmation hearings and vote may be something of a proxy for congressional action on the use of force on Iran.
Update: Someone much more knowledgeable about the region than I am pointed out another irony about the Hagel nomination. If the hawks are correct both about Sen. Hagel's views and about what hinders negotiations with Iran, then the appointment of Hagel, on the margins, potentially increases the likelihood of the outcome the doves profess most to despise: an Israeli preventive strike on Iran. Here is how the logic plays out: If the hawks are right, the appointment of Hagel undermines the use of force threat, which both undermines negotiations with Iran and undermines Israeli confidence that it can trust the United States to, in Obama's words, "have its back." Failing negotiations, coupled with growing Israeli doubts, intensifies pressure on Israeli leaders to take matters into their own hands, with all of the predictable undesirable consequences that will ensue. Irony of ironies, such Israeli action might be taken to confirm Hagel's critique of Israel, the same critique that some supporters say justifies his confirmation and others say justifies voting against him. Secretary Hagel, my friend suggests, might be a self-fulfilling prophet.
There are too many hypotheticals piled upon hypotheticals to bet the farm on this chain of logic. For one thing, a Secretary Hagel would doubtless work tirelessly to head off such an Israeli preventive strike and the administration may well succeed in preventing Israeli action even if they do not succeed in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. And, of course, the hawks might be wrong about Hagel's views or the likely consequences of those views for coercive diplomacy. But if Hagel is as wise and prudent as his supporters claim, it would probably serve him well to think through "what-ifs" like these and to clarify his views in the hearings accordingly.
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It has become conventional wisdom in the United States and Europe that Israeli politics is shifting rightward. This in turn fuels a view that only tough love from Washington and European capitals -- in the form of a dictated peace plan or other such ultimatum -- can salvage any hope for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and ultimately secure Israel's own survival. Both the analysis and policy advice are flawed, and if heeded by the Obama administration would further undermine prospects for peace and security in the Middle East.
It is incontrovertible that the list chosen by Likud voters in their recent primary -- which includes hardliners such as Moshe Feiglin -- represents a sharp move to the right for the party. It is also correct that a recent poll by Israel's Dahaf Institute indicates that the Jewish Home-National Union party, which is to Likud's right, stands to more than double its representation in the Knesset, taking seats from Likud and its electoral partner, the secular-right Israel Beitenu party.
What is noted less often, however, is that left-wing parties have also gained. The same poll shows gains not just for the Labor party, but for the far-left Meretz party as well as social-justice-focused Yesh Atid (which did not previously exist), as well as for Tzipi Livni's "Movement" party. The losers are the Likud-Israel Beitenu coalition, projected to lose nine seats, and the centrist parties -- Kadima, which had twenty-one seats but will cease to exist, and Ehud Barak's "Independence" party, which will not field candidates with his retirement from the Knesset.
Despite this shifting within both the left and the right, the polls indicate an absence of movement between the two poles. The result, rather startlingly, is that despite the churn, the right-left balance is forecast to remain precisely as it currently stands. The data projects not a more right-wing Knesset, but a more polarized one. It also projects a weaker position for Prime Minister Netanyahu in coalition politics, which could well mean a more right-wing government than that he currently heads, though -- depending on what deals he is able to cut -- this is hardly a foregone conclusion.
More important for U.S. policymakers is what such election results would reveal about Israeli voters. Analysts who fret that the Israeli election will diminish prospects for peace have confused cause and effect. Heightened security worries sparked by Iran and the upheaval in the Arab world, compounded by fading hopes for peace with the Palestinians after four years of backsliding in the peace process, have fueled the electoral shifts that will be manifest in the Jan. 22 results.
A separate Dahaf poll from December 2012 indicates that Israelis increasingly believe that concessions will not bring real peace. Eighty-three percent did not believe that even a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines would bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and seventy-five percent felt that the Palestinian Authority could not be relied upon to fulfill its obligations. This figure is up from sixty-four percent just a year ago, a sign of how the PA's unilateralism at the United Nations has shaken Israeli confidence in its negotiating counterpart.
This pessimism about peace has undoubtedly fueled a view that "defensible borders," not a peace agreement, is the surest route to actually achieving peace. Sixty-one percent of Israelis express that view, compared to forty-nine percent who did so in 2005. It is also surely deepened by growing anxiety about developments in the Arab world -- forty-one percent of Israelis said these made peace with the Palestinians less likely, up from thirty-two percent just one year ago. Israelis are also fixated on the threat posed by Iran -- fifty-three percent support an Israeli attack on Iran, even though just twenty-one percent believe that such an attack will succeed in eliminating an Iranian nuclear threat.
It is this deep and abiding anxiety over security which drives voters to right-wing parties, whose supporters tend to identify security policy as their number-one concern. Those voters who support leftist parties do not tend to do so because they also prioritize security but believe the left has a better approach to achieving it; they do so because they overwhelmingly identify economic and social issues, rather than security, as their top priority.
Buried in all of this data is hope for the United States. The political polarization in Israel does not necessarily indicate, as casual analysis has sometimes suggested, polarization over security issues. If anything, the Israeli public is a lot like the American public -- quite concerned about the security challenges emanating from the Middle East, but unsure what to do about them. They are also pragmatic, however, and clearly desire peace. The Dahaf poll shows an even split on dismantling settlements outside the major blocs, and clear support for a restrained Israeli response to the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN. And other polls continue to show strong support for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- despite despair that one will ever be achieved.
This deep -- if flickering -- desire for peace is an opportunity for the Obama administration, and the data also point to a policy path for seizing it. That path must begin with a return to basics. The U.S. must first restore the health of the U.S.-Israel alliance. The Dahaf poll suggests that only thirty-nine percent of Israelis believe the United States can be counted upon to support Israel.
Washington must also convince Israelis that it is determined to tackle the threats which so preoccupy both our populations, from the chaos in Syria to Iran's nuclear ambitions. Right now, only thirty-nine percent of Israelis believe that they can rely upon the United States to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Finally, the U.S. must seek to restore some measure of faith between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. This will require small steps focused on issues where joint Israeli-Palestinian gains are possible, rather than the grand gestures to which American and European officials have sometimes succumbed in the past. The collapse of confidence between the two sides began with the December 2008 Gaza war, but was compounded by American diplomatic errors, such as the Obama administration's focus on a total settlement freeze. Settlements are a deeply difficult issue, but not the obstacle to negotiations they have lately been made out to be. It has been largely forgotten that the Annapolis Conference in November 2007 was immediately followed by a crisis attending the announcement of construction in Har Homa. That crisis was overcome, and the negotiations proceeded a few weeks later.
These three elements -- the U.S.-Israel alliance, U.S. leadership in the region, and a certain faith in one another between the two sides -- constitute the pillars upon which any successful peace process must rest. As he approaches the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his second term, President Obama must avoid desperation in either of its primary modes -- hail-Mary peace plans or glum inaction. It is never a bad time to push for peace; but making progress will require patient preparation, followed by consistent, unflinching, and unglamorous work.
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President Obama is set to nominate Sen. Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense and his team seems to relish the confirmation battle that will ensue. Obama is calculating that he will be able to rally enough wobbly Democrats and skeptical Republicans to overcome the strong opposition to Hagel. In the end, I think he is probably right: there is usually a strong presumption in favor of a president's nominee and Democrats will be loathe to hand the president another personnel defeat so soon after he was forced to back off nominating Ambassador Susan Rice to be secretary of state. Lower ranking candidates are often stuck in limbo for long periods of time with senatorial holds, but it would be more unusual for one of the top cabinet positions to be blocked that way. Doubtless, Obama is calculating there will be lots of fireworks at the confirmation hearing, but eventually Hagel will get confirmed, albeit without the resounding and enthusiastic support that ushered in Obama's first two SecDef picks (Leon Panetta was confirmed unanimously and Robert Gates, received a 95-2 vote when nominated by President Bush. Quick trivia quiz: Who voted against Gates? Two Republicans, Sen. Jim Bunning and Sen. Rick Santorum, though Senators Joe Biden, Evan Bayh, and Elizabeth Dole did not vote).
My bet is Obama will win this fight, which raises the question, what will he have won? Based on the commentary surrounding the Hagel nomination issue, perhaps the answer is that Obama could win another round in the fight to stigmatize support for the Iraq war. I reached this conclusion after reading two thoughtful pieces, one pro-Hagel and one anti-Hagel. Bill Kristol registers a strong critique of Senator Hagel and raises an important question: beyond the evident appeal of rebuking Obama's critics, what is the case for Hagel? And Peter Beinart indirectly offers an intriguing answer: rebuking Obama's critics is sufficient case for Hagel.
The battle over Hagel is a battle over the meaning of Iraq. The pro-Hagel faction has a distinctive interpretation of what happened in Iraq. They believe that invading Iraq was a strategic blunder so egregiously stupid that it could only be foisted on the American public through a coercive and deliberately deceptive propaganda campaign. The wisest people were those who always opposed Iraq (read: Obama), but those who voted for the use of force in Iraq can be forgiven for succumbing to this folly only if they quickly became vocal critics of the war (read: Hagel, Clinton, and Biden). Once the original folly of invading Iraq had been committed, there was only one plausible outcome: rapid strategic defeat for the United States and equally rapid withdrawal. The critics appeared to want this outcome to be cemented during the Bush presidency, perhaps so as to indelibly mark who was to blame for the fiasco, hence they vigorously opposed Bush's surge at the time and argued instead that U.S. troops should withdraw under fire regardless of the consequences in Iraq. The success of the surge in reversing Iraq's strategic trajectory was an awkward complication, but this faction ultimately overcame it by arguing, against all the evidence, that the surge was irrelevant to any possible positive development in Iraq. Importantly, this interpretation absolves the Obama administration of all responsibility for anything bad that happens in Iraq, thus any sins of omission or commission that occurred in Obama's first term are waived away as utterly inconsequential.
Hagel personifies this interpretation of Iraq -- indeed, he went so far as to claim that the surge was "the most dangerous blunder in this country since Vietnam." Note that: not the invasion of Iraq, but the surge in Iraq, the effort to reverse the strategic trajectory.
The anti-Hagel faction, of course, has a different interpretation of what happened in Iraq. Views on the ultimate wisdom of the initial invasion of Iraq vary widely among this group, but they share two common features: that the decision was (1) well-debated (no coercion or deception) and (2) reasonable, meaning that given the limits of what was known and the associated uncertainties, a reasonable policymaker could conclude that resorting to military force was an acceptable option to replace the collapsing (and believed to be failing) sanctions/inspections regime. With hindsight, one could argue that the decision was a mistake, maybe even a blunder, but not in a way that discredited all of the strategic judgments that led up to it. And, importantly, not in a way that dismissed the importance of all of the strategic judgments that came after it. An important part of this interpretation of Iraq is the claim that, once launched, the best strategic course for the United States was to seek success -- to fight until it could leave behind an Iraq that could govern itself democratically, defend itself, and be a U.S. ally in the fight against violent extremists in the region. By 2006 Iraq was not on a trajectory to success, but the surge changed that. Thus, while the surge may not have compensated in some moral or political sense for all mistakes that went before, it was certainly the right and consequential choice given where the country was in 2007. Finally, this faction argues that the last four years have been consequential as well, and that Obama's choices have resulted in an Iraq that is far less conducive to American national security interests than what other choices would have produced.
The debate over the historical meaning of Iraq matters because it has such obvious implications for the analogous challenge with Iran. Many of the pro-Hagel supporters openly acknowledge that they hope Hagel's pick signals that the President is willing to abandon the military option in dealing with Iran, for much the same reasons that they argue the option was disastrous in Iraq. President Obama has not publicly connected those dots, but I expect he will be challenged to explain whether that interpretation makes sense in the days to come.
By the way, the conventional wisdom is that Obama's other national security pick -- John Brennan for CIA director -- will sail through confirmation. I do think he will be readily confirmed, but I would not be surprised if some Senators used the hearings to register growing concern about President Obama's counter-terrorism policies, especially drone strikes. The Obama administration's drone strike program is broadly popular in the United States, but not among the left and libertarian-right flanks. Brennan is the face of that program -- to the extent that anyone is the face of a program operating so much in the shadows -- and so this will be the single best opportunity critics will have to register their concerns. (The program is under much greater pressure abroad, and I expect the President to have to spend considerable political capital abroad if he wants to maintain it at the level he set in the first term.)
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I agree with the vast majority of what Danielle Pletka writes in "Think Again: The Republican Party." As a result, rather than joining the post mortem of last year's election, I'm going to focus my attention on the agenda for the future.
Republican national security strategy has traditionally been characterized by a sober view of the international environment and strong support for national defense. In common with other conservatives, most Republicans believe that things could -- and quite possibly will -- be worse. But Republicans have been at their best when they have coupled wariness of potential foes with an abiding confidence in America and its values.
An emphasis on power and values is needed now as much as ever. In recent years, a new orthodoxy has taken hold among policy elites, including more than a few Republicans. That view argues that with the war in Iraq over and that in Afghanistan winding down, the United States should embrace a narrower (or, more politely, a more "selective") conception of its role in the world. Accordingly, the United States can afford to make major cuts in defense spending. Indeed, the new orthodoxy holds that resources spent on defense can be better -- and more productively -- spent elsewhere: That is, the United States should move from practicing nation-building abroad to building the nation at home.
This view, which often bleeds over into declinism, deserves to be challenged. A national security strategy built upon traditional tenets of the Republican foreign policy offers a potent counterpoint to the new orthodoxy. Five premises are central to such a policy.
First, the United States is an exceptional nation. The new orthodoxy errs in downplaying America's strengths. These include our considerable (though neglected and decreasing) advantages in sea and air power, our alliances with some of the world's most prosperous democracies, and our considerable domestic energy reserves. It also sells America short by downplaying the fact that for centuries the United States has been a magnet for the world's best and brightest. The United States is truly exceptional in that it is one of only a handful of countries (with Australia, Canada, and Israel) that can attract talented individuals from across the world and make them productive, successful members of our society within the span of years. Republicans could make immigration a winning issue by backing measures to lower the barriers to skilled, educated workers becoming American citizens. Imagine, for example, if every graduate professional degree in the basic and applied sciences came with a green card attached.
The new orthodoxy also sells America short by downplaying the power of American values. Support for democracy abroad is in America's strategic interest. Failing to foster democracy, or abandoning new democracies, is hardly a recipe for a safer, more secure world.
Second, the United States has an exceptional role to play in the world. Global leadership is a choice. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates cautioned shortly before leaving office, "The tough choices ahead are really about the kind of role the American people -- accustomed to unquestioned military dominance for the past two decades - want their country to play in the world." However, if the United States chooses not to exercise its leadership, the best we will get is chaos; the worst we will get is leadership by those who do not share our values. The United States today does not have the luxury of Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- there is no like-minded great power to pass the baton to. Isolationists (or, more politely, "offshore balancers") assume miracles in arguing that if the United States pulls back, others will preserve a balance of power favorable to the United States.
Third, the world continues to be a dangerous place. America may be war-weary, but its competitors are not. If we do not look after our own interests, we cannot expect others to do so for us. Although some parts of the world (Europe, for example) are clearly safer and more secure than in decades past, other parts of the world, such as the Middle East and Asia, are less secure. Al Qaeda is busy setting up safe havens on the Arabian Peninsula and in North Africa. Iran continues its quest for nuclear weapons, and North Korea is advancing its nuclear and missile capabilities. Of particular concern is China's ongoing military modernization, a portion of which is aimed at coercing U.S. allies and denying the United States access to the Western Pacific. Moreover, the United States appears to have underestimated the scope and pace of China's fielding of new weapons, including those designed to counter U.S. power-projection forces. Over the past decade the weapons most needed to respond to such developments have received short shrift in the Pentagon budget. As a result, the United States faces an increasingly unfavorable military balance in the Western Pacific.
Fourth, our investment in national defense is a net benefit, not a cost. In historical terms, the United States spends relatively little on defense. We have also derived a lot from that investment. The new orthodoxy has the relationship between economic and national security wrong. It is not a case of a tradeoff between nation building at home and abroad. Rather, prosperity at home depends upon American engagement abroad.
Defense spending provides tangible benefits to the American people both internationally and domestically. Internationally, American military dominance has benefited the United States and the world as a whole. The fact that the U.S. Navy has commanded the maritime commons has allowed trade to flow freely and reliably, spurring globalization and lifting millions out of poverty. It is unclear whether the stability that American military dominance has yielded would continue in its absence. As Joseph S. Nye, Jr. famously noted, security is like oxygen: You don't notice it until it begins to run out.
Domestically, defense does more to stimulate the U.S. economy than most things the U.S. government spends money on. The defense budget creates jobs and spurs the development of new technology. It is hard to think of other categories of government expenditure that do as much to stimulate economic growth.
Although the United States has spent considerable sums on defense, modernization has lagged. As a result, U.S. Air Force aircraft are on average more than 23 years old, the oldest in Air Force history, and are getting older. Many transport aircraft and aerial refueling tankers are more than 40 years old, and some may be as old as 70-80 years before they retire. The U.S. Navy is smaller now than it was before the United States entered World War I, and is getting smaller. Only full-scale recapitalization will reverse this trend.
Fifth, we need to show confidence in America. Republicans are right to be concerned about foreign threats, but they need to be alive to opportunities as well. Ronald Reagan was effective not only because he took the threat posed by the Soviet Union, but also because he was bullish on America -- much more so than the so-called "realists" of his day.
There is much that the United States can do today to harness its enduring strengths to meet today's threats. A recently published volume that I edited provides some ideas about how the United States can compete more effectively with China, but such an approach can also be adapted to meeting many of the other challenges we face.
A strategy based upon these tenets may run against the current political tide, but draws upon a deep tradition of American foreign policy. It is also the right strategy for the United States to preserve its historical role in the world.
Thomas G. Mahnken is a visiting scholar at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at The Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
Danielle Pletka writes that Republicans and Democrats are divided on foreign policy most fundamentally by values. Republicans believe in "a moral imperative for U.S. power in the world" which leads them to support the growth of democracy worldwide, implying that Democrats do not. Nonsense. Democratic presidents have been so idealistic and fervent in their pursuit of a moral foreign policy that they gave us a name for it (Wilsonianism), a doctrine (Truman), and a hapless precedent for how not to do it (Carter).
Republicans do a disservice when they try to make promoting democracy a partisan issue. It is much safer to recognize the broad bipartisan consensus that has existed at least since the McKinley administration that American power should tilt the playing field of history towards freedom.
True, some Democrats began to betray their century-old heritage by overreacting to Iraq. Barack Obama sounded some vaguely realpolitik-y notes in his campaign and his first year in office. But Democratic realism died a silent and unmourned death in the sands of Libya. Obama and his advisors couldn't resist the opportunity to cleanse America's image by undertaking a pure humanitarian mission unsullied by the least connection with strategic interests. We are now safely united again in a grand strategy of spreading the democratic peace.
The real split between the parties is in deciding how, when, where, and why to foster democracy abroad, in answer to which the Obama administration has been incoherent and inconsistent. The Republican response -- Pletka's included -- so far, is to call for leadership and money, neither of which constitutes a strategy. Calling for more defense spending doesn't fit the bill unless we explain what that spending is for and what interests will go unsecured if we fail to allocate the money. And calling for more "leadership" is equally void of meaning unless we explain where we are going and why we think America -- and the world -- should follow.
We don't have to have grand philosophical debates. We can pick specific issues that illustrate the parties' differences and hammer on them relentlessly. I know I sound like a broken record, but we could start by tackling head-on the biggest crisis the United States is currently engaged in that top American officials are resolutely ignoring: not Syria, but Afghanistan.
Just because the average voter stopped paying attention years ago, and elected officials followed suit soon after, does not mean the United States no longer has interests there. Democrats performed an astonishing and shameful about-face between 2008, when it unanimously affirmed it as the good war to which we absolutely must devote more resources right now, and 2010, when their president led the way by no longer believing the war was winnable despite clear evidence to the contrary, and announced an intention to withdraw our forces without specifying how we will mitigate the obvious damage to American interests that will result from allowing terrorists to regain safe-haven in a large swathe of South Asia.
Mitt Romney missed a large and obvious opportunity to differentiate himself from the president by going on the attack on Afghanistan. Republicans can and should be out front explaining what our interests are and how we can win. Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates was absolutely right when he insisted that the Pentagon focus on the wars we were fighting rather than the hypothetical wars of the future. That is still true. If Republicans want to win back their foreign-policy credentials, they should stop their scripted apoplexy over Syria, Iran, and China and say something intelligent and relevant about the war in which American troops are still dying. That's the least we owe our soldiers.
Paul D. Miller is an assistant professor of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. He previously served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. The views expressed here are his own.
I agree with Danielle Pletka that the Romney campaign was all over the map, and nowhere convincing, on foreign policy. But I disagree that the strategic circumstances necessitate Reaganesque stances on national security. Nor do I think that is a winnable argument for Republicans with the American public.
What the public wants ought not to be the sole determinant of our national security policies -- every conservative applauds Edmund Burke's insistence that he owed his constituency his judgment, not just his vote. But public opinion does matter in every democracy, and it matters especially for the United States because the main limit on our power is our willingness to use it.
My very strong sense is that voters don't want to hear it right now; they aren't amenable to our arguments for an assertive policy to advance our values in the world. We made that case too glibly in the Bush administration, and managed it too poorly, for voters -- even Republican voters -- to trust our judgment. We will have to earn our way back into their confidence.
Pletka makes passing, critical reference to Dwight Eisenhower's unwillingness to intervene in Hungary. And she's absolutely right that Eisenhower clamped down on advocates of rolling back Soviet expansion. He understood that 1950s voters still taking solace in a willful innocence after World War II, who elected him to end the Korean War, had no stomach for liberating Hungary. And, after all, the president is the person who ultimately has to decide how much to risk and pay for what we attempt in the world.
Public indifference to how the wars are concluded -- President Obama has paid no price that I can ascertain for ending rather than winning our wars -- suggests Americans are in about the same place now. Just as the Vietnam War cast a long shadow over American willingness to take an active role in refashioning the international order, Iraq and Afghanistan are casting their pall over public support for interventions very much in our strategic interest, like Syria or Iran.
We will miss lots of opportunities to shape the world in better ways as Americans turn inward. But we Republicans ought also to acknowledge that we squandered the public trust with rosy projections of the cost of the wars and colossal mismanagement for far too long. We delegitimized our own strategy and we are still paying the price for it. President Obama's fecklessness in Iraq and Afghanistan has only added a general skepticism that wars as we now fight them are winnable at all.
It will not be enough for Republicans to argue that we know the right thing to do. We will need to demonstrate we know how to achieve it, and at a price the American people are willing to pay. I suspect it will take another decade of absorbing the consequences of allowing the world to grow more dangerous before Americans would be willing to consider another war on the scale of Iraq or Afghanistan. We delay rather than hasten that time by advocating a Reaganesque assertiveness rather than an Eisenhower restraint.
Kori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and an associate professor at the U.S. Military Academy.
It is not the best of times for Republicans on foreign policy. Having just lost another presidential election and being the minority party in the Senate (the congressional branch with the most involvement on foreign policy), the GOP finds its center of gravity relegated to the House of Representatives and state governors' mansions, where foreign policy ranges from a secondary (the House) to non-existent (governorships) issue. Exit polls from the 2012 election show that the GOP has lost its historic advantage on national security to Democrats in the minds of the American people. It is an appropriate time for Republicans to take stock of where we stand on foreign policy, and Danielle Pletka's article is a welcome spur to this effort.
A meaningful debate within the party is the logical next step. Here I would remind my fellow Republicans that our more partisan critics in places like the media and the Democratic Party have favored attack lines they will employ no matter what path we pursue. If the GOP unites around a particular national security platform, we will be derided for "squelching dissent" and "being hijacked by ideological extremists." Whereas if the GOP has a substantive internal debate on foreign policy and multiple camps emerge, we can expect stories about "the GOP in disarray" and "internal feuding and incoherence." The lesson in this? Have the debate because it is a constructive and needful thing to do; just don't enlist persistent critics of the GOP as referees.
So what should a GOP foreign policy look like? An unappreciated but essential part of foreign policy is accurately reading the state of the world and the tides of history. Past Republican successes have come in part from enduring principles and competent implementation, but also from a proper appreciation for the state of the international system and America's capabilities at that particular historical moment. Thus Teddy Roosevelt at the dawn of the 20th century accurately saw the opportunity for the United States to look beyond its continental preoccupations and assert itself as an emerging global power. Dwight Eisenhower at mid-century realized the need for America as a global superpower to build a Cold War strategy based on balancing domestic economic growth and national security needs with a prudential but still assertive international posture. Richard Nixon, taking office during a time of overextension and strategic vulnerability, perceived the imperative to reconfigure the global chessboard in ways more favorable to America's diminished hand. Ronald Reagan, who won election amidst national decline and global diminishment, abandoned the conventional wisdom in pursuing a strategy of renewal at home simultaneously with a more assertive posture abroad. George H.W. Bush inherited a strong nation and presided over the end of the Cold War and restructuring of the international order while avoiding overreach. George W. Bush realized that the Sept. 11th attacks demanded a new counterterrorism paradigm, of both tools and doctrines. The twin facts that the United States has not been attacked since and that the Obama administration has maintained this paradigm testify to the success of this strategy.
Mindful of this history, the question for the future of Republican foreign policy should begin not with where we think the Democrats may be wrong, but with what we think the state of the international system is today and how it can be shaped in ways favorable to U.S. interests and consonant with American values. Like many other Republicans, I share Pletka's reverence for Reagan's presidency and agree that his values offer a good starting point for foreign policy today. But updating the Reagan legacy for the 21st century means appreciating how Reagan's day differed from our own even as his principles endure.
This does not mean abandoning our critique of where the other party gets things wrong. Judging from recent trends, I suspect the Obama administration's second term might present some particular opportunities for the GOP to offer a compelling alternative, especially leading up to 2016. As Peter Feaver and I have pointed out before, the Obama administration's successes in the first term largely came when following the Bush playbook, such as preserving the policy and legal framework for the war against jihadist terrorism or a dual-track strategic posture in Asia of both balancing and engaging with China. The Obama administration's failures in the first term, however, were generally sui generis, reflecting either poor judgment or deferred action on hard issues, and sometimes both.
Unfortunately, those hard issues are only getting harder. To take just one example, the White House should realize it has a serious problem with its Syria policy when senior French officials disparage its posture as "waiting from behind." Nor do other places look good: Iran, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Korea are all situations where the Obama administration's current policy lines and assumptions are not promising. Republicans have a chance to say how we think these things could be handled better.
William Inboden is a distinguished scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law and an assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He previously served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House, and co-moderates the Shadow Government blog at ForeignPolicy.com.
The most important thing Republicans need to understand about U.S. foreign policy today is that Republicans are out of power and Barack Obama is in power.
That may seem obvious, but much Republican commentary seems to ignore it. Much of the post-election commentary seems divorced from the political reality that, especially in the area of national security policy, Democrats hold not just an advantage, but a decisive one (politically, that is, not substantively). Yes, Republicans hold the House, and Democrats lack a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. But Obama has a much stronger political position than, say, George W. Bush enjoyed in 2005 (let alone 2007), and while second-term Bush faced great constraints on what he could do domestically, he was able to overcome those constraints in the national security arena. Obama will likely be able to prevail at least as often as Bush did.
Republicans will be able to influence
foreign and national security policy, but only on the margins. We can and
should make the case for key priorities -- restoring U.S. leverage in the
Middle East, thwarting Iran's nuclear ambitions, matching resources to goals in
the Asia-Pacific, etc. -- but we should recognize that Obama will have his way,
and his way will likely increasingly diverge from what Republicans would wish
him to do.
If the dominant theme of Obama's first term was continuity -- despite campaigning against Bush foreign policy, Obama continued far more of it than either side would like to admit -- the dominant theme of the second term may well be change. In the coming years if not months, Obama will likely face pivotal decisions on Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and defense cuts, and on each one he is showing signs that he will decide in ways quite different from how a President Mitt Romney might have done. I am not sure what Republicans can do to change that trajectory.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once observed that you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you wish you had. The same logic applies to the commander-in-chief: Republicans need to recognize that we wage foreign policy with the commander-in-chief we have, not the one Republicans wish we had.
The dominant feature of this commander-in-chief is that he is so determined to avoid errors of commission that he risks comparable errors of omission. For example, he is so determined to avoid starting another Iraq war by U.S. action that he has allowed a strategically analogous problem -- a sectarian civil war spiraling out of control -- to arise in Syria by U.S. inaction.
Obama's distinctive risk calculus sets limits on what kind of American foreign policy is viable in the next four years. How plausible is it to recommend a more muscular approach to Syria or Iran when this president has been loath to mobilize public support for the very military escalations in Afghanistan that he campaigned on? How realistic is it to talk about defense spending at 4 percent of GDP when the president seemed willing to stomach defense cuts amounting to $1.4 trillion through 2023 (if we sum the cuts he has already authorized and credit him as willing to trigger the defense sequester to protect his apparent red lines forbidding cuts to entitlements).
It is fine for Republicans to hold the administration accountable in the public square for its choices, but Republicans also have to recognize that a Republican playbook implemented by the Obama team would likely not produce the kind of results Republicans want.
Of course, this approach sidesteps a larger and ultimately more important issue: What ought to be America's role in the world, and how can Republicans persuade the voters to embrace that role in 2016? Danielle Pletka makes a very useful contribution to that larger effort, and in coming blog posts I hope to make mine, too. But before we can get that right, we have to acknowledge where we are and where we aren't.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University. He co-moderates the Shadow Government blog at ForeignPolicy.com.
Danielle Pletka's thought-provoking piece on the future of foreign policy in the Republican Party deserves more systematic and fulsome treatment than time and space currently allow. Some random reactions will have to suffice for now. That said, I very much look forward to the debate that Pletka invites. It's indeed an important one. The intra-GOP divisions to which she alludes are in some cases deep and wide. Moreover, they frequently appear to touch on matters of first principle that not long ago seemed largely settled -- an apparent shattering of the Reagan-era consensus, the long-term consequences of which I sense may trouble me somewhat more than they do her.
Pletka suggests that the GOP must be a party that believes there are things worth fighting for. Agreed. But what, exactly? Elsewhere, she makes the case for America's "obligation (not merely the occasional inclination) to help others attain the benefits of a free society." What's the connection, if any, between those two important thoughts? And doesn't that go to the heart of the larger problem that seems to be bothering a lot of Americans when it comes to the Republican Party? Not that they don't think we'll use force, but that we've been all too eager to pull the trigger? What's the limiting principle? Where won't we fight and why?
Pletka of course understands this well. She notes the importance of Republicans explaining to the American people "how much can be done consistent with America's deepest principles but without the use of force, without threats, without protectionism, and without breaking the bank." That seems to me an essential task going forward: to restore the public's faith that the GOP is not only the party most willing to stand up and defend America's vital interests in a dangerous world, but also the one that will do so employing the most creative, competent, and forward-looking strategies -- a national security policy that makes the use of force not just the last resort, but almost always unnecessary because of what Pletka calls the exercise of "genuine American leadership that meets challenges before they become threats."
In this regard, perhaps more than Pletka, I tend to think that the GOP will need to engage in a more thorough-going reckoning with the Bush-Cheney years, particularly the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences. Not, as she correctly warns, for the purposes of "killing" that legacy, but rather for an honest accounting of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and the lessons learned. It's necessary for its own sake of course. But it's also important, I think, as part of the task of rebuilding the public's overall confidence in the Republican foreign policy brand.
A few odds and ends. I don't think Pletka mentions free trade and energy policy. The Republicans should own these issues, especially the impending American oil and gas boom. The impact on America's economic strength at home and strategic flexibility abroad promise to be revolutionary if properly and comprehensively exploited.
Finally, it's worth noting that the speed of the GOP comeback will at least in part be determined by what happens in the world between now and 2016. Pletka is harshly critical of President Obama's foreign-policy record. I generally don't disagree. But the fact is that Obama has not suffered some of the mega-disasters that so obviously plagued the administration of Jimmy Carter and made Reagan's critique so innately compelling for the American people. No Iranian hostage crisis. No Desert One fiasco. No hollow military on display. No Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While it's clear to Pletka and me that Obama's policies are sowing the seeds of expanding international instability, chaos and violence, the fact is that the day of reckoning has not yet come -- when the price for "leading from behind" will really come due in much higher sacrifices of American blood, treasure, and honor. Benghazi was but the canary in the coal mine, a foreshadowing of the super storm yet to hit.
But for now, it must be said that Obama has largely succeeded in avoiding the worst, in kicking the can down the road. Can it go on for another four years? I would guess not. But I could be wrong. If I am, if Obama's luck continues to hold, if the world is such in 2016 that a plausible case can still be made that the Democrats have been responsible stewards of America's national security, then whatever the Republicans do in opposition to get their foreign policy house in order (as necessary and essential a task as that no doubt is) may not be enough to make an electoral difference.
John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, served as national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney from 2005 to 2009.
Do we really need another lesson on the folly of attempting to appease dictators?
Apparently, Foreign Affairs thinks so -- albeit inadvertently. They recently posted a piece, "Our Man in Havana," about the heroic efforts of some Obama administration officials to give the Castro regime everything it wanted for the release of jailed development worker Alan Gross. Specifically, this meant gutting the official U.S. democracy program for Cuba that Gross was operating under. In the end, however, they just could not overcome the intransigence of -- not the Castro regime -- but the "Cuban-American Lobby" in Congress.
Indeed, not only did they not wind up with the long-suffering Gross's freedom, but, to boot, former Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela was forced to sit through a humiliating meeting with Cuban officials ranting about all the dictatorship's grievances against the United States. As the article puts it, "The Cubans were far less flexible than the Americans expected." (One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.)
The central figure in this drama of high diplomacy is one Fulton Armstrong, a controversial former CIA analyst who began a second career as a staffer for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA). (Today, he is affiliated with American University.) Armstrong was such an unabashed promoter of U.S.-Cuba normalization in the inter-agency process that he was shipped off to Europe during the Bush 43 administration, although not before playing a role in trying to scuttle John Bolton's nomination to serve as U.S. representative to the United Nations.
Apparently, Armstrong was enlisted by the administration to serve as a go-between with the Castro regime, no doubt due to the fact that he was a "friendly face" in the eyes of the Cubans. His mission: convince the Castro regime that the Obama administration agrees with them that USAID's Cuba democracy programs "are stupid" and that, in the words of Armstrong, "we're cleaning them up. Just give us time, because politically we can't kill them."
The article also includes other Armstrong-sourced inanities meant to further discredit the USAID program: that he was told by a "State Department official" that Gross's mission was "classified" and by another that Gross "likely worked for the Central Intelligence Agency." Apparently, Armstrong needs new sources, because such assertions are nonsense and known to be by anyone remotely associated with the program (as I was during my time with the Bush administration.)
The ever-resourceful, man-on-a-mission Armstrong even enlisted his former boss, Senator Kerry, in the appeasement effort, arranging for him to meet with Cuban officials in New York. The article reports, "there was no quid pro quo, but the meeting seemed to reassure the Cubans that the democracy programs would change, and the Cubans expressed confidence that Gross would receive a humanitarian release shortly after his trial." (That was in March 2011.)
Enter the villain: Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), a member of the nefarious "Cuban American Lobby." He supposedly called Denis McDonough, Obama's deputy national security adviser, to say basically hands off the Cuba program. According to a former government official, "McDonough was boxed in." Now, there's a tough call: side either with a lawless dictatorship or with an influential U.S. senator from your own party.
In the end, the effort to appease the Castro regime ended predictably: no freedom for Alan Gross and only utter contempt from Castro regime lackeys. Indeed, is there any mystery why Gross continues to languish in a Cuban jail cell when, according to Armstrong, unnamed administration officials signal to the Cubans that they think the democracy program is "stupid" as well? Moreover, offering to gut a democracy program because a dictatorship opposes it sends a terrible message to authoritarian regimes around the globe.
As I have written several times before, the best approach to securing Alan Gross's freedom is not giving in to the demands of an illegitimate regime, but by denying it things it wants and needs, such as U.S. tourists spending hard currency under currently licensed travel programs. Let's hope this Fulton Armstrong-led fiasco puts an end to any more appeasement attempts and the issue is placed in the hands of those with a more sober understanding of the nature of the Castro regime
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Yesterday was a good day for children. Hard to believe it, given recent events and the news of death, violence, and the suffering of children around the world. Millions are living in adverse conditions, barely surviving, often completely alone. In response, on Wednesday USAID launched a "whole of government" approach to this global challenge in the form of the first ever U.S. Government Action Plan on Children in Adversity. This new framework for international assistance targets children who are affected by HIV/AIDS, orphaned, trafficked, exploited for labor, recruited as soldiers, neglected, or in other vulnerable states. It has the potential to dramatically increase the impact of our assistance to improve the lives of highly vulnerable children, especially those living outside family care, by coordinating efforts across multiple U.S. agencies and allowing greater collaboration with civil society. One year ago on this blog, I advocated for a bipartisan initiative, along the lines of PEPFAR, to improve our response to the pressing child protection needs around the world. Though the recently launched initiative sadly does not come with significant new funds, I am delighted to see the White House hosting its launch.
Two recent events highlight the importance of the current focus on child protection. The first, of course, is the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. As our country mourns the loss of innocent life, grieves for the families of victims, and tries to explain why this happened to our children, we understand, perhaps more than ever, the need to protect children from adversity or help them recover from it. The children who died at Sandy Hook were clearly loved by their families, their teachers, and their community. One of the teachers, Kaitlin Roig, gave an interview describing her experience saving several of her students by hiding in a bathroom. She made sure to tell them that she loved them all very much, because she wanted that to be the last thing they heard in case they died. There are millions of children in the world today who witness or directly experience horrors similar to the Newtown shootings but have no family or other adults to know their pain, mourn their loss, or comfort their fears.
The second event was the untimely death to cancer of Rwanda's Minister of Gender and Family Promotion, Aloisea Inyumba, at age 48. Mrs. Inyumba was, among many honorable achievements, a superhero for children. In 1994, immediately after the Rwandan genocide, she was a young cabinet minister in her twenties who knew that children, especially traumatized ones, belong in families. She worked tirelessly in intense circumstances, to ensure that the vast majority of the 100,000-plus children separated or orphaned by the genocide were reunited with their families or placed with new families through a national adoption campaign. After reassuming the role of Minister of Gender in 2011, she led the country to set as a policy goal the closing of all orphanages in Rwanda through placement of all children in families.
What the Sandy Hook teacher and Minister Inyumba knew to be true is also backed up by science. Research developments in neuroscience, health, and child welfare increasingly show the detrimental effects of "toxic stress", created by many types of adversity, on a child's development. Research also shows the importance of the love, care, and protection a family can provide to mitigate the effects of toxic stress and improve outcomes for children into adulthood. The Action Plan's primary objectives of building strong beginnings, putting family care first and protecting children will help all stakeholders focus on the most effective ways to improve outcomes for children. It is not just the right thing to do. It is the most strategic investment we can make with our foreign assistance and charitable giving.
The Action Plan also includes calls for more evidence-based research and child protection system strengthening. Both require new tools to enumerate children living outside family care and to help those working with the children to better keep track of their case histories and find solutions for each of them. That is the mission of a new organization I founded called Each Inc. We join many civil society groups across the political and religious spectrum in supporting the Action Plan that prioritizes partnerships and provides a way for all of us to work together. As we prepare for the holidays, many of us ponder the first Christmas when there was no room at the inn for Jesus. My hope this season is that more of us will make room in our hearts and homes for children suffering alone right now. If we do, the world will be better for generations to come, and we will be blessed.
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images
Amid the furor over the attack on our U.S. consulate and the death of four Americans serving in Libya, Secretary Hillary Clinton convened an internal State Department review -- and that Accountability Review Board has just released its report. Clinton has cannily already said she will adopt all of the recommendations in the report. Unfortunately, even doing so will not solve the problems that occurred in Benghazi.
The New York Times describes the report as sharply critical, but it is not. While acknowledging that "there was no protest prior to the attacks, which were unanticipated in their scale and intensity," and "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels," the report concludes that the solution lies in more money with fewer congressional strings attached. Yet when Congress has given State money and allowed it latitude to program those resources, this has not resulted in an adequate supply of expert diplomats to high-risk postings or adequate security for our diplomats operating in those postings.
The report contains all the well-known State Department refrains: The world is newly complicated, diplomacy is underfunded, Congress must change its approach. Here's the medley of greatest hits, in language from the report itself:
"the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) is being stretched to the limit as never before ... for many years the State Department has been engaged in a struggle to obtain the resources necessary to carry out its work ... it is imperative for the State Department to be mission-driven, rather than resource-constrained -- particularly when being present in increasingly risky areas of the world is integral to U.S. national security ... [any] solution requires a more serious and sustained commitment from Congress to support State Department needs ... the United States cannot retreat in the face of such challenges."
What the State Department does not acknowledge -- but what is at the core of its institutional failures -- is that it sets priorities, and that those priorities have not adequately changed with the changing needs of American diplomacy or the changing demands of security for our diplomats. Since 9/11, funding for the State Department and USAID has increased by 155 percent and the size of the Foreign Service has doubled, yet State has chosen to channel its increased resources to the functions the institution values more than diplomatic security. There is not even a mandatory training program for diplomats being assigned to high-risk posts.
Prior to the Benghazi attacks, State's advocates complained that post-9/11 funding increases had been predominantly in consular and diplomatic security rather than in new staff for multilateral organizations, international law, economics, science and technology, public/private partnerships, and international organizations. By which they meant that the terrorist attacks on the United States should have resulted in more involvement in activities to which State is already optimized, rather than in increasing security for embassies and screening people applying for visas even though those are critical vulnerabilities highlighted by attacks on American embassies in the past 15 years. The report just released uses this opportunity to argue for more language training; it offers insight into the institutional culture of an organization that begrudges security at the expense of additional staff to do what the department is already doing.
The report's top recommendation is that "the Department should urgently review the proper balance between acceptable risk and expected outcomes in high risk, high threat areas." The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review called for the same thing; yet in the two years since the QDDR was released, State has not developed such a risk model nor expended institutional effort in building consensus with the executive and with Congress. Having our diplomats actively engaged in dangerous circumstances -- as Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya and Ambassador Robert Ford in Syria have been -- is essential. If our diplomats remain bastioned inside our embassies, they could just as well perform their functions from Ohio as from Libya. But State has not made solving this problem a priority.
The report's second recommendation is to applaud State for having already created "a new Diplomatic Security Deputy Assistant Secretary for High Threat Posts." Its third is more personnel for assistant secretaries in Washington. This is deeply discouraging, because it reinforces State's tendency to believe that more money and more high-level positions are the solution, rather than clarifying accountability. The report states that "among various Department bureaus and personnel in the field, there appeared to be very real confusion over who, ultimately, was responsible and empowered to make decisions based on both policy and security considerations." Yet, with its advocacy of external threat evaluators, increased staffing in Washington, and "multi-bureau support cells," it does not make recommendations for resolving that irresponsibility.
In one crucial way, the system worked in Libya: the ambassador-in-country determined whether the mission justified the risks. Ambassador Stevens undertook an extraordinary set of risks traveling to Benghazi, given the problems the report explains with local security forces. State allowed Benghazi to become "a floating TDY platform with successive principal officers often confined to the SMC due to threats and inadequate resources, and RSOs resorting to field-expedient solutions to correct security shortfalls." The report acknowledges similar security problems and proposed solutions have been extant since 1999. The tragedy of Benghazi is that, once again, State has proven itself incapable of arraying the institution to support the terrific individuals serving on the front lines of American diplomacy.
The problems identified in the report are systemic problems, and fixing them is almost wholly within State's existing authorities. As Congress explores the Benghazi debacle, it ought to force State to look clearly at the deficiencies of its institutional culture, and align incentives to correct them. The questions State should be pressed to answer are: Why have you not fixed these problems before now? How can you make us confident you will fix them going forward?
2012 will end with Japan and Korea both choosing new governments as the leadership on Asia policy changes at the State Department. All three transitions could have an impact on the president's vaunted pivot to Asia.
In Japan the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just walloped the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) at the polls. On the one hand, this is nothing new. The last three Japanese elections (2005, 2009 and 2012) ended with lopsided victories as the frustrated Japanese electorate searched for leadership to get them out of their current doldrums. With the election of Shinzo Abe, however, the Western media and the left have hit general quarters. Time Magazine predicts dangerous new friction in Northeast Asia; the folks at Foreign Policy have featured analysis warning Japan could go nuclear; and within some quarters of the administration there is nervous chatter about whether Tokyo might provoke China too much.
Abe is a nationalist, to be sure, and he has said less than helpful things this election cycle about elevating attention to Japan's territorial dispute with Korea and revisiting a 1993 apology for treatment of the euphemistically-called "comfort women" who were sent to the rear areas of Japanese combat units during the war. On the whole, however, Abe is a good nationalist -- which is to say that he wants to project a Japan that is far more resolute than the flip-flopping of the past three years under the DPJ. At a time when Beijing thinks it is winning in its campaign to coerce maritime states on territorial issues, Abe has promised to increase spending on the Japanese navy and coast guard, to relax constraints on defense cooperation with the United States, and to strengthen security ties with the Philippines, Australia, India and others in Beijing's crosshairs. The United States should embrace this agenda. The problem is that any continuation of the nationalist rhetoric of the election campaign would drive a wedge between Japan and Korea, putting the United States and Japan in a weaker position to deal with a dangerous North Korea and an overbearing China. The administration should quietly explain the problem to the incoming team in Tokyo in exactly those strategic and national interest terms. In his last go as Prime Minister, Abe moved from nationalist to pragmatic statesman, improving ties with both China and Korea. As it became clear that LDP would win a landslide this time, he also began tempering his comments and stressing that he would rebuild the U.S.-Japan alliance and place importance on relations with China and Korea. His top advisors say privately not to worry. National security is all about worrying, though, so the administration will need the skill to construct a trusted private dialogue on the sensitive issues with Tokyo, backed by robust public support for Japan's security.
Korea goes to the polls on Wednesday. Right now the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye, has a lead in most polls, but just inside the margin of error. Her opponent, Moon Jae-in, appears to have slight momentum on his side (Korean law limits polling in the final days of the election). Both are trying to appeal to the center without abandoning their bases. Park is the former daughter of strongman Park Chung Hee, while Moon was chief-of-staff and heir apparent to the former president, Roh Moo-hyun. Park's supporters are generally tougher on North Korea, more pro-U.S., and older. Moon's supporters are generally softer on North Korea and younger, but not gripped by the same anti-Americanism that helped Roh get elected in 2002. The younger voters' conversion is typified by Psy, the Gangnam-style rap artist who recently apologized for his crude anti-American songs from a decade ago. Moon himself is a pragmatist who appears to have learned the political and security consequences of the Roh administration's initial anti-Americanism. The problem is that Moon has surrounded himself with hardcore leftists who still believe that the right approach to North Korea is to buy their confidence with economic aid, even after (or they would argue especially after) Pyongyang has tested long-range missiles and possibly begun preparations for a third nuclear test. Needless to say, that policy would create considerable dissonance with Washington. Even Park, whose pro-alliance credentials are solid, has hinted that she will not be quite as tough with either Pyongyang or Beijing as the incumbent, Lee Myung-bak, has been.
Just as Japan and Korea enter these transitions, the Obama administration is losing its best stewards of Asia policy -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her assistant secretary for East Asia (and, truth in advertising, good friend to a number of us at Shadowgov), Kurt Campbell. There are other solid Asia hands in the administration, to be sure, but State has been particularly instrumental in managing U.S. alliances in the region. It is not hard to imagine an incoming team at State deciding that the highest priority in the second term must be modifying the harder edges of the pivot and quietly reassuring Beijing that the U.S. does not fully support Japan's new trajectory -- or worse, publicly walking away from a declaratory policy on the contested Senkaku Islands that suggests the U.S. is completely neutral (for three administration's the policy has been neutrality on the territorial claims, but clear signals that the United States would not be neutral if there were any military coercion by China). There are hints that some in the administration have already been shifting their public statements in this direction. Similarly, Korea-U.S. relations have prospered in the last four years, not because the Obama administration came in with any particular strategy for strengthening relations with Seoul, but because the President was personally captivated by President Lee Myung-bak's commitment to globalizing Korea's role and restoring trust in alliance relations with Washington. It is one thing to react to a dynamic ally, but quite another to put in the hard work of strengthening alliance ties when there are disagreements over North Korea policy or uncertainties in Seoul about how to deal with China in future.
The good news is that any new team will have to face confirmation hearings. In private calls and hearings, the Senate should be sure to take some time off from Iran, Syria and Afghanistan to verify the nominees' fundamental thinking about our alliances in Asia. These alliances do not run on auto-pilot, nor are they always easy. But as Lord Carrington once said about us as allies in the face of European criticism in the 1980s, "Yes ... yes ... all your complaints are true, but they are the only Americans we have."
Tadayuki YOSHIKAWA/AFP/Getty Images
Watching the nightmare in Syria unfold, you have to ask yourself: Could the Obama administration have made a worse hash out of the situation if it had tried?
Short of an outright Iranian victory that saw the Assad regime's power fully restored, it's hard to imagine a more dire set of circumstances for U.S. interests. The Syrian state is well on its way to imploding. A multiplicity of increasingly well-armed militias are rushing to fill the vacuum. At the forefront of the fight are a growing number of radical Islamist groups, including some affiliated with al Qaeda. The prospect that Assad' s demise will be accompanied by the use (and/or proliferation) of chemical weapons and massive communal bloodletting gets higher by the day. Libya on steroids is what we're looking at, only this time not on the distant periphery of the Middle East but in its heartland, a gaping strategic wound that is likely to threaten the stability and wellbeing of Syria's five neighbors -- critical American partners all -- for years to come.
Does it require saying that it need not have been this way? That with sustained American leadership over the past 21 months the most threatening aspects of this crisis could not only have been seriously mitigated, but U.S. interests significantly advanced?
This isn't simply a case of Monday-morning quarterbacking. The number of articles written since March 2011 urging the administration to action to hasten Assad's end -- short of ground troops, but including a wide menu of coordinated diplomatic, economic, security, and intelligence steps -- would fill volumes. Ditto the number of analysts who repeatedly warned that left to its own internal logic, the Syrian crisis would veer increasingly toward disaster. Abandoned to face Assad's slaughterhouse alone, it was entirely predictable that those masses of average Syrians who week after week, month after month, literally begged for Western intervention to help topple the tyrant and shape a post-Assad future would eventually be eclipsed by jihadism's black flag.
The administration dismissed it all with so much disdain. Reckless. Simplistic. Pouring fuel on the fire, they charged. Down that way, they insisted, was only a parade of horribles: sectarian conflict, civil war, al Qaeda's empowerment, a failed state, loose WMD, and international spillover. Sound familiar? Indeed. Virtually every risk the administration warned might be triggered by U.S. intervention has been made all-too-real in the absence of U.S. intervention.
This was abdication masquerading as serious foreign policy; a flight from leadership gussied up to appear as thoughtful restraint, prudence, realism.
How else to characterize a strategy that repeatedly put its faith in Vladimir Putin of all people -- the arsenal of Syria's dictatorship -- to deliver an acceptable political solution just as Assad's savagery was getting into gear, and after the U.S. had sworn up and down that it had no intention of providing meaningful assistance to the regime's foes? Likewise the subsequent indulgence for months on end of Kofi Annan's well-meaning, but quintessentially toothless diplomacy on behalf of the UN.
Again, there was no shortage of observers at the time highlighting the fact that absent American leadership to help Syria's opposition alter the correlation of forces on the ground, these maneuvers were doomed to fail, and even worse to provide international cover for Assad to massacre thousands more. It would be an insult to their intelligence to say U.S. officials were not cognizant of this reality. This was something more cynical, something more calculated. Not diplomacy as solution, but diplomacy as excuse, a rationale for avoiding the kind of muscular action that the administration was loathe to take -- especially in an election year, especially in a benighted Middle East that in the eyes of most Americans long ago exceeded its allotment of U.S. attention, treasure and sacrifice.
All of which has left us here, confronting an oncoming train wreck of well-armed Islamists, battle-hardened and thirsty for power and revenge on the one hand, and a crumbling, desperate dictatorship on the other, its hands drenched in the blood of its own people and sitting on top of the Middle East's largest arsenal of chemical weapons.
Belatedly, it seems to have dawned on the administration that simply sitting on the sidelines, allowing events to play out while hoping for the best might not accrue to U.S. interests, and could well prove catastrophic. But having waited so long to act, the window of opportunity that was once available for shaping an outcome consistent with U.S. concerns has narrowed considerably, if not closed. A popular movement whose core once clamored for Western leadership and intervention has grown increasingly embittered and resentful at what they perceive to be their near total abandonment by Washington. With more than 40,000 corpses underfoot, frantic 11th-hour moves by the U.S. to mobilize a coherent political opposition, establish influence with armed groups, and marginalize extremist militias like Jabhat al-Nusra that have carried a major brunt of the fighting are widely viewed with a mixture of suspicion and contempt -- not just too little too late, but part of some larger conspiracy to abort the revolution's victory over Assad just as it comes into view.
What to do when no good options remain? If rebel advances have finally convinced the Russians that Assad's days are indeed numbered, a very slim chance may still exist for some form of last-ditch diplomacy that salvages the core structures of a functioning state and averts the black hole of uncontrolled collapse and chaos. The starting point would have to be the rapid exit from power of Assad and his immediate clique, either via voluntary exile abroad or some version of a palace coup. A UN-brokered negotiation on a political transition would then ensue between a remnant of the Alawite regime and the internationally-backed opposition, leading hopefully to a ceasefire, some form of national unity government, and eventually a new constitution with credible guarantees for Syria's minority communities, followed by free and fair elections.
No doubt this is a very tall order. What the Russians could actually deliver with respect to Assad, even if they wanted to, is a major question mark. More importantly, why the armed opposition, especially its most radical elements, would ever agree at this point to stop short of an outright military victory that ended with the storming of Assad's palace is not at all apparent. Convincing them and the Syrian people otherwise would require a unified, full-court diplomatic press by all Syria's major outside stakeholders, equipped with a powerful panoply of both pressures and inducements.
Short of that kind of diplomatic miracle, the outlook is extremely bleak. Battening down the hatches and riding out the storm as Syria fractures may be the best we can do. Working as closely as we can with our key partners in the region and internationally, we should identify those armed groups that are prepared to work with us and have no truck with the most extreme Islamists. Strengthen political and military alliances between them. Provide the humanitarian aid and resources they need to consolidate and expand their popular support, as well as defensive weaponry and training to provide local security and fend off both the jihadists and Iran in the post-Assad era. Critically, we need a viable plan for securing and/or neutralizing Syria's chemical weapons, either in conjunction with these local forces or on our own.
Also vital will be a concerted strategy to buttress our key regional allies and contain the dangerous spillover effects of Syria's implosion. Jordan in particular is under enormous internal strain and requires urgent international support that the U.S. should immediately help mobilize, especially financially from the Persian Gulf states.
It was less than two years ago that the uprising in Syria presented the United States with a historic opportunity to weaken Iran and advance our own regional interests. Today, Syria looms as a potential strategic disaster, where America's options for positively shaping outcomes have all but vanished, and frantic efforts at damage limitation are all that remain. In the arc of that transformation from hope to despair lies the tale of a colossal policy blunder, perhaps the Obama administration's most serious to date, one whose consequences will almost surely haunt us long after the president leaves office.
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The Senate's war hawks, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, are giving voice to their concerns that the Obama administration is about to repeat in Afghanistan the policy choices that squandered the national security gains and political influence bought with blood in Iraq. All three are making direct parallels between the endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senator Graham cautioned "Iraq is falling apart. Political progress has stopped, al Qaeda is beginning to remerge. What you see in Iraq is going to happen in Afghanistan if we do not have a post-2014 presence."
Ostensible secretary of defense candidate Senator Jack Reed told reporters yesterday that such criticism was "comparing apples and oranges." His rationale? "Reed noted that botched withdrawal from Iraq was set in motion by the Bush administration, and said President Obama is intent on not making the same mistakes in Afghanistan." There is evidently no statute of limitations beyond which this Administration will take responsibility for its own choices -- even when the president actually campaigned on the policy choices Senator Reed is saying are the fault of their predecessor.
All of the significant choices about the end of the war in Iraq were made by the Obama administration:
The result? An authoritarian Iraqi government turning the military we built against its domestic rivals, aligning itself with Iran and excusing the depredations of the Assad government against its own people.
And the Obama administration appears poised to make the exact same set of choices in Afghanistan. The President conveyed early that he cared about the timeline, not the objectives of the war, leading all affected parties to hedge against us. President Obama chose not to draw attention to the malfeasance of the 2009 election that returned Hamid Karzai to power, instead over-investing in the incumbent. President Obama cared less about risk -- either to our forces or to achievement of the objectives for which they were fighting -- than about diversion from "nation building here at home," evidenced by his limits on resources requested by commanders. His diplomats never were able to deliver on either of our strategy's seminal political objectives: Pakistani cooperation and Afghan governance. His administration promised a "civilian surge" that never materialized. His administration sprayed money ineffectually through aid programs uncoordinated with our strategy's objectives and inadequately supervised to prevent colossal corruption (the Special Inspector General's report should infuriate every American taxpayer). His exit strategy was contingent on Afghan security forces being able to undertake the fight, yet the fact that only one of 23 Afghan brigades are capable of independent operations has not affected either the timeline of our withdrawal or the size of the force that would remain in the country. And now the Obama administration is negotiating a long-term stationing agreement that would consolidate around 6,000 U.S. forces at a single base outside Kabul to conduct raids throughout the country and train small numbers of Afghan security forces. But the Karzai government seems unlikely to allow U.S. forces to retain immunity, likely considering himself better off if he appears to force our retrenchment than simply be the victim of it.
Why would President Obama repeat the mistakes of Iraq in Afghanistan? The saddest and likely truest answer is that he doesn't consider them mistakes. Small wonder parties to the conflict have been positioning themselves against U.S. abandonment of our allies and our objectives in Afghanistan.
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The National Intelligence Council's (NIC) just-released Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds report identifies key meta-trends that will shape the future international system, including the explosion of the global middle class, the diffusion of power away from the West, and the rising likelihood of inter-state conflict. In no other region will these trends play a more decisive role than in Asia, where the NIC predicts China to emerge as the world's largest economy, India to become the biggest driver of middle-class growth on Earth, and conflict scenarios between a number of rising and established powers likely to put regional peace at risk. In no other region will the future of U.S. leadership in the international system be more decisively tested than in an Asia featuring rising giants like India and Indonesia, a fully emerged peer competitor in China, and the dramatic tilt in the international economy's center of gravity from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific.
What kind of role Asia will play in the world, and how it will relate to the United States and other Western powers, in turn will be determined by what form of regional order is operative in 2030. My last post described four broad pathways Asia could take over the next two decades. This one sketches out a more granular set of scenarios for Asia's future, identifying seven distinct possibilities that could emerge by 2030. That there are these many pathways demonstrates how unsettled regional power dynamics are -- and how much uncertainty remains around China's trajectory, U.S. staying power, Japan's strategic re-emergence, and the nature of Asian regionalism.
Headline scenarios for Asia in 2030 include:
More specifically, three forms of multipolarity in Asia seem possible: (1) a cooperative-competitive multipolar order in which the United States is the strongest power; (2) a fundamentally competitive multipolar order in which China is the strongest power; or (3) a liberal Concert of Asia in which multiple strong states organize themselves around cooperation rather than competition.
Alternatively, three forms of bipolarity seem possible: (1) an Asia split into two competitive blocs led by the United States and China; (2) a region featuring a withdrawn United States pitting a grouping led by China against a contending one led by Asia's other great and regional powers; and (3) a Sino-American condominium in which a cooperative bipolarity orders the region.
Finally, one form of unipolarity is possible (and only one): a form of Chinese primacy that reduces other states to lesser status and effectively excludes the United States from playing a leading regional role.
From the vantage point of 2012, the most likely Asian strategic futures for 2030 appear to be, in descending order: (1) multipolarity with a U.S. lead, (2) U.S.-China Cold War, (3) multipolarity with a Chinese lead, (4) Asia-China Cold War, (5) concert of Asia, (6) Sino-American condominium, and (7) new Middle Kingdom.
The key variable will be what role the United States chooses to play in Asia with respect to continued military presence and diplomatic/economic leadership (which themselves will derive in part from the ability of the United States to revitalize its domestic power resources); defense of its allies and deepening of strategic partnership with India; and the nature of its relationship with China. Other decisive variables will be the scope and pace of internal political change within China; the speed of India's economic and military rise; and the future of Japan and the U.S.-Japan alliance.
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If you were Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, how worried would you be about President Obama's threats regarding a U.S. response to any use of Syrian's chemical weapons? A series of recent news pieces (here, here, and here) seem to suggest a depressing answer: not very much.
Ever since the civil war started, the nightmare scenario has been the prospect that the conflict would escalate to a point where Syria's vast chemical arsenal was in play -- either through a deliberate use or through a loss of custody. That nightmare seems ever more plausible as the civil war grinds on, particularly as the tide seems to be favoring the rebels. It is not impossible to imagine a rapid collapse of the Assad regime and, for that very reason, it is not impossible to imagine circumstances under which Assad would be tempted to gamble with a game-changer like chemical weapons.
President Obama has consistently warned that the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer for American involvement, as well. The Administration has hitherto resisted calls to intervene more directly in the conflict, but it has also indicated that the United States would act militarily if chemical weapons were used.
How might Assad interpret that vague threat?
One can divide up the continuum of military response into five main categories, listed below in order of escalating involvement:
1. Symbolic punitive strike: a military response designed to indicate sharp disapproval, but otherwise not tilting the balance in the civil-war and not securing the WMD.
2. Game-changing military operation that topples Assad regime: some combination of sustained strikes and other action (e.g., no fly zones) that tilts the military balance decisively in the rebels favor, hastening the fall of the Assad regime.
3. Destroying the chemical arsenal: conducting enough airstrikes to render the arsenal unusable by Assad or by terrorists and militia groups.
4. Invading to secure the WMD arsenal: deploying enough ground troops to secure the many chemical depots and to hunt down any weapons that may have slipped away.
5. Invading to guarantee a favorable political transition: deploying enough ground troops to guarantee the toppling of the Assad regime and assure a transition to a new political order more favorable to U.S. interests.
None of these is an attractive option.
Option 1 is trivially easy to do but will not accomplish much beyond its symbolism -- even its symbolic message may be undone, since a response like this signals weakness as loudly as it signals disapproval.
Option 2 is a bit more challenging -- but compared to the other options quite doable. However, it will not address our biggest concern about the chemical weapons. It will implicate the United States in the civil war without giving us much leverage over the political outcome or the disposition of the chemical weapons.
Option 3 may not be doable and would involve tremendous collateral damage. The arsenal is vast, and widely dispersed, and destroying all of it from air would require a very lengthy sustained bombardment. In the process, the air strikes would result in extensive contamination and casualties in communities near the depots. Even then we could not be certain that all of the weapons were destroyed before terrorists got their hands on some.
Option 4 would be a daunting military operation, and depending on the state of Syrian forces could approximate another Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF, the invasion of Iraq in 2003). Once in Syria, the pressure for mission-creep to expand to policing a political resolution to the civil war would be nearly irresistible. Also, this would take a long time to assemble (think how long it took to build up to OIF) and some chemical weapons could go missing in the delay.
Option 5 would be tantamount to another OIF -- all of the downsides of Option 4 plus an indefinite commitment to a hostile occupation.
The Obama Administration has assiduously avoided spelling out with any clarity what the President might be contemplating, but some things are clear. Obama has built his entire regional strategy around the "no more Iraqs" objective. There is a double meaning: "no more Iraq" in the sense of leaving Iraq regardless of consequences and taking a hands-off approach to the unraveling situation there, and "no more Iraqs" in the sense of not making any military commitments that involve substantial U.S. ground troops.
Perhaps the prospect of Syrian chemical weapons landing in the hands of terrorist groups would cause the President to change his regional strategy, but a change of that magnitude would require substantial political preparation of the American public. The uncertain and vague comments so far from the Administration are far from adequate to the task. My inference, and likely the inference of Assad, too, is that Options 4 and 5 are effectively off the table.
I can well imagine that the Administration would be tempted to try Option 3, but it is far from clear that it is militarily feasible. And is there anything in the past four years that would suggest this Administration is willing to risk the substantial collateral damage that would ensue?
Option 2 is more likely and, given the fecklessness that would be signaled in Option 1, might be where the Administration ends up. But the Administration has been very wary about getting on other slippery slopes and, despite its boasts about leading from behind in Libya, the Administration understands that doing "another Libya" is a dangerous business. Indeed, the Administration has resisted pressure to do just that up until now when there was more upside potential and so why would they change their mind now when the upside looks far more bleak. It is not at all clear that the use of chemical weapons on Syrian rebel groups would be enough to change Obama's calculus.
If Assad reasons the same way I have just done, he may conclude that what Obama means by military warnings about chemical red lines is simply Option 1: punitive strikes that don't otherwise change the game. In other words, Assad may conclude that Obama's threats are the least of his worries, given how desperate his situation is.
Ironically, then, if the Obama administration really does want to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, it may have to threaten more credibly than it has so far a level of military intervention the President manifestly wants to avoid.
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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.