In advance of tomorrow's Big Speech on foreign policy, the Romney campaign has released a list of 22 special advisors and 13 working groups in the area of foreign policy and national security.
Since I am not on the list (though I am happy to see that several Shadow Gov colleagues are), I feel free to comment on the quality. It is very high. This is a classic "ready to govern on Day 1" list. Most of the names have had experience serving in senior positions in the prior administrations, and many have public service records that go back decades. Because so many were Bush-appointees, this list will anger the Bush-haters. But my sense is that reflexive Bush-hatred is on the wane, at least among voters who might plausibly pull the lever for Romney. And, just as importantly, there is real value in signaling that you are ready to handle the national security challenges of a post-9/11 world. It is hard to do that without tapping the bench of people who have experience handling those challenges.
Another feature of this list is that it includes many people who are respected not only inside Republican circles but also, to a certain extent, across the partisan aisle and among reporters specializing in foreign policy and national security. I say "to a certain extent" because the list does not have prominent "Republicans That Democrats Most Love to Love (So Other Republicans Don't)" but neither does it have many "Republicans That Democrats Most Love to Hate." Instead, Romney's list is comprised of the types of people who would be quietly consulted by Democratic national security experts and reporters, if only to know what smart people on the other side think about a given policy.
Of course, campaigns are not won or lost through lists like this and this campaign in particular will hinge on other factors. Still, the quality of the list poses an interesting double challenge. First, it challenges President Obama, making it harder for him to argue that Romney is an irresponsible extremist whose views would put the country in jeopardy. I expect Romney's speech to double-down on that challenge.
Second, it challenges Romney's most formidable rival for the nomination, Governor Perry, making it all the more imperative for him to establish his own foreign policy credentials. Perry has the distinct disadvantage of entering the campaign late and while his impressive fundraising numbers prove his campaign deserves its first-tier status, his late entry has slowed his effort to assemble the rest of the apparatus of a first-tier campaign. Now Romney has raised the bar just a wee bit higher on him. One reporter asked me, "Who is not on the list that is still available for Perry? I can't think of anyone." I can think of many good people (for starters, the Shadow Gov roster has many, and we haven't cornered the market ourselves), so the reporter was wildly exaggerating. But there is no question Perry has his work cut out for him.
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The New York Times has expressed some surprise that President Obama has thus far reaped remarkably little political advantage from the more hawkish elements of his terrorism policies. While the public gives President Obama generally high approval for his handling of terrorism, Obama's overall approval rating has sunk dramatically. The Times concludes that it must be because economic issues have eclipsed security concerns in the minds of voters.
Doubtless that is true, but I think the Times story misses an important point: Obama's overall approval rating might be even lower were it not for the high marks the public still gives him on terrorism policy. In other words, the Times story reads like the reporter believes the puzzle needing explaining is why, given all of the terrorism successes, Obama's ratings are not higher? Perhaps the puzzle needing explaining is the opposite: why, given Obama's domestic record, is his approval rating still hovering as high as the low 40's?
More generally, however, there is another puzzle worth exploring: why have several years of fairly hawkish counterterrorism policy not improved the Democratic Party's overall brand on national security? According to Gallup, Americans still see Republicans as markedly better than Democrats at "protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats." This has long been a central part of the Republican brand, though the public's frustration with the Iraq war allowed Democrats to enjoy a temporary advantage during the last year or two of the Bush tenure.
After Obama got elected, the Republican advantage returned and has remained steady ever since. Frankly, I am surprised that Obama's genuine successes, particularly the bin Laden strike, seem not to have translated into more tangible improvements in the Democratic Party brand on this issue.
Several things, alternatively or collectively, may be at work. First, it is possible that the Democrat brand would be even worse without the hawkish Obama policy to point to; one clue in favor of this theory is that Democrats are not lagging Republicans as badly as they did in the early years after 9/11. Second, it is possible that Obama's hawkish actions alienate as many doves as they woo hawks, leaving him no better off in the polls; a clue in favor of this theory is that the percentage of respondents reporting "no difference/no opinion," has inched up in the Gallup poll from a low of 9 percent in 2008 to 13 percent whereas the percentage endorsing Republicans has stayed the same at 49 percent and the percentage favoring Democrats dropped from 42 percent to 38 percent. Perhaps some fraction of the public was hoping Obama would be more dovish and now is equally dismayed by Republican and Democratic hawks. Third, it is possible that the Democratic brand is undermined by party doves who publicly complain about Obama's policies, albeit not as loudly as they complained when Bush pursued the same policies. And fourth, perhaps the public doubts the sincerity of Democratic hawkishness, viewing it as political posturing rather than a sincere expression of the party's commitment to national security.
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A unicorn is a beautiful, make believe creature. But despite overwhelming evidence of its fantastical nature, many people still believe in them. Much of China policy is also underpinned by belief in the fantastical: in this case, soothing but logically inconsistent ideas. But unlike unicorns, our China policy excursions into the realm of make believe could be dangerous. Crafting a better China policy requires us to identify what is imaginary in our thinking about China. Author James Mann captures some in his book.
Here are my own top ten China policy unicorns:
1) The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. This is the argument that has the most purchase over our China policy. Treat China like an enemy, the belief goes, and it will become an enemy. Conversely, treat China like a friend and it will become a friend. But three decades of U.S.-China relations should at least cast doubt on this belief. Since the normalization of relations with China the aim of U.S. policy has been to bring China "into the family of nations." Other than China itself, no nation has done more than the United States to improve the lot of the Chinese people and to welcome China's rise peacefully. And, rather than increase its deterrence of China -- a natural move given the uncertainty attendant to the rise of any great power -- the United States has let its Pacific forces erode and will do so further. We may soon go through our third round of defense cuts in as many years. Here is just one example of how unserious we are about China: As China continues to build up its strategic forces, the United States has signed a deal with Russia to cap its strategic forces without so much as mentioning China. Unless Beijing was insulted by this neglect, surely it could take great comfort in an anachronistic U.S. focus on arms control with Russia. But despite our demonstrations of benevolence, China still views the United States as its enemy or, on better days, its rival. Its military programs are designed to fight the United States. The self-fulfilling prophesy is far and away the most fantastical claim about China policy and thus the number one unicorn.
2) Abandoning Taiwan will remove the biggest obstacle to Sino-American relations. Since 2003, when President Bush publicly chided then-Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian on the White House lawn with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at his side, the United States has been gradually severing its close links with Taiwan. President Obama's Taiwan policy has been the logical dénouement. Arms sales have been stalled, no Cabinet members have visited Taiwan since the Clinton years, and trade talks are nonexistent: there is essentially nothing on the U.S.-Taiwan policy agenda. The reaction from China? Indeed, it has moved on. But rather than bask in the recent warming of its relationship with Taiwan, China has picked fights with Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, and India. It does not matter what "obstacles" the United States removes, China's foreign policy has its own internal logic that is hard for the United States to "shape." Abandoning Taiwan for the sake of better relations is yet another dangerous fantasy.
3) China will inevitably overtake the U.S. and we must manage our decline elegantly. This is a new China policy unicorn. Until a few years ago, most analysts were certain there was no need to worry about China. The new intellectual fad tells us there is nothing we can do about China. Its rise and our decline are inevitable. But inevitability in international affairs should remain the preserve of rigid ideological theorists who still cannot explain why a unified Europe has not posed a problem for the United States, why post-war Japan never really challenged U.S. primacy, or why the rising United States and the declining Britain have not gone to war since 1812. The fact is China has tremendous, seemingly insurmountable problems. It has badly misallocated its capital thanks to a distorted financial system characterized by capital controls and a non-market based currency. It may have a debt to GDP ratio as high as 80 percent thanks again to a badly distorted economy. And it has created a demographic nightmare with a shrinking productive population, senior tsunami, and millions of males who will be unmarriageable (see the pioneering work of my colleague Nick Eberstadt).
The United States also has big problems. But we are debating them vigorously, know what they are and are now looking to elect the leaders to fix them. China's political structure does not yet allow for fixing big problems.
4) (Related to 3). China is our banker. We cannot anger our banker. In fact, China is more like a depositor. It deposits money in U.S. treasuries because its economy does not allow investors to put it elsewhere. There is nothing else it can do with its surpluses unless it changes its financial system radically (see above). It makes a pittance on its deposits. If the U.S. starts to bring down its debts and deficits China will have even fewer options. China is desperate for U.S. investment, U.S. treasuries, and the U.S. market. The balance of leverage leans towards the United States.
5) We are engaging China. This is a surprising policy unicorn. After all, we do have an engagement policy with China. But we are only engaging a small slice of China: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The party may be large -- the largest in the world (it could have some 70 million members). We do need to engage party leaders on matters of high politics and high finance, but China has at least one billion other people. Many are decidedly not part of the CCP. They are lawyers, activists, religious leaders, artists, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs. Most would rather the CCP go quietly into the night. We do not engage them. Our presidents tend to avoid making their Chinese counterparts uncomfortable by insisting on speaking to a real cross section of Chinese society. Engagement seen through the prism of government-to-government relations keeps us from engaging with the broader Chinese public. Chinese officials come to the United States and meet with whomever they want (usually in carefully controlled settings, and often with groups who are critical of the U.S. government and very friendly to the Chinese government). U.S. leaders are far more cautious in choosing with whom to meet in China. We do not demand reciprocity in meeting with real civil society -- underground church leaders, political reformers and so on. China has a successful engagement policy. We do not.
6) Our greatest challenge is managing China's rise. Actually, our greatest challenge will probably be managing China's long decline. Unless it enacts substantial reforms, China's growth model may sputter out soon. There is little if nothing it can do about its demographic disaster (will it enact pro-immigration policy?). And its political system is too risk averse and calcified to make any real reforms.
7) China's decline will make our lives easier. China's decline may make the challenge for the United States more difficult for at least a generation. It could play out for a long time even as China grows more aggressive with more lethal weaponry (e.g., what to do with surplus males?). Arguably both Germany and Imperial Japan declined beginning after World War I and continuing through the disaster of World War II. Russia is in decline by all useful metrics. Even so, it invaded a neighbor not too long ago. A declining, nuclear-armed nation with a powerful military can be more problematic than a rising, confident nation.
8) We need to extricate ourselves from the "distractions" of the Middle East and South Asia to focus on China. This is a very popular unicorn among the cognoscenti. But how would this work? As Middle Easterners go through a historic revolution that could lead to the flowering of democracy or the turmoil of more extremism, how do we turn our attention elsewhere? Are we supposed to leave Afghanistan to the not-so-tender mercies of the Taliban and Pakistani intelligence? This view is particularly ironic given China's increased interests in the Middle East and our need for a partnership with India to deal with China. There is no way to create the kind of order we wish to see in Asia without exerting a great amount of influence over the oil producing states in the Middle East and by allowing India to become tied down in a struggle in South Asia. We are the sole superpower, our foreign policy is interconnected. "Getting Asia right" means "getting the Middle East and South Asia right."
9) We need China's help to solve global problems. This is further down on my list because it is not really a fantastical unicorn. It is true. What is a fantasy is that China will be helpful. We do need China to disarm North Korea. They do not want to, and North Korea is now a nuclear power. The same may soon be true with Iran. The best we can get in our diplomacy with China is to stop Beijing from being less helpful. It is a fact that the global problems would be easier to manage with Chinese help. However, China actually contributing to global order is a unicorn.
10) Conflict with China is inevitable. A fair reading of the nine "unicorns" above may lead to the conclusion that we are destined to go to war with China. It may be a fair reading, but it is also an inaccurate one. Sino-American relations will be determined by two main drivers; one we can control, the other we cannot. The first is our ability to deter aggressive Chinese behavior. The second is how politics develop in China. The strategic prize for Washington is democratic reform in China. Democracy will not solve all Sino-American problems. China may be very prickly about sovereignty and very nationalistic. But a true liberal democracy in China in which people are fairly represented is our best hope for peace. The disenfranchised could force their government to focus resources on their manifold problems (corruption, misallocated resources, lack of social safety net). The United States and the rest of Asia will certainly trust an open and transparent China more, and ties would blossom at the level of civil society. Historically, the United States has almost always been on China's side. It is waiting patiently to do so again.
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The Iranian regime regularly serves reminders of its malevolence: its support for Hezbollah and Hamas terrorism, its killing of American troops in Iraq, its support for Bashar al-Assad's massacres of Syrian dissidents, its brutality to its own citizens during the Green Movement protests, or its persecution of religious minorities such as Bahais, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Christians.
In the latter category is the urgent case of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian Christian pastor in the city of Rasht who this week was found guilty of the "crime" of apostasy for his conversion from Islam to Christianity. Under shari'a law apostasy is a capital offense. Knowing this, Pastor Nadarkhani on three consecutive days this week still refused before the court to renounce his Christian faith and return to Islam. Many reports indicate that Pastor Nadarkhani faces the very real possibility of execution. Even if the court releases him, he would not be spared danger. Religious freedom advocates remember the cases of Iranian pastors such as Mehdi Dibaj (also a convert from Islam), Haik Hovsepian-Mehr, Tateos Michaelian, and Mohammad Bagher Yusefi who were all abducted and murdered in the 1990s, very likely by Iranian intelligence agents.
The White House, State Department, and Speaker of the House Boehner have all issued statements calling on the Iranian Government to spare Pastor Nadarkhani's life, as have other Members of Congress and world leaders such as British Foreign Minister William Hague. These are welcome steps and serve notice to Tehran -- which does care about its international image - that its oppression does not go unnoticed. There are several additional diplomatic measures that can be taken. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice should remonstrate with her Iranian counterpart at Turtle Bay, Mohammad Khazaee. Related, the Obama Administration can demonstrate the utility of America's renewed membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council by pushing in Geneva for an emergency Council resolution condemning Iran's treatment of Pastor Nadarkhani and calling for the preservation of his life and his immediate release. And though the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, the State Department can work to mobilize other nations that do -- such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany -- to issue protests through their embassies in Tehran. Finally, Obama and Clinton can speak out publicly and in person to call for Pastor Nadarkhani's release.
The Iranian Mission to the U.N.'s website rather audaciously proclaims that "as a founding member of the United Nations, Iran believes deeply in the ideals of the organization and the purposes and principles of its Charter." Would that it were so -- especially since Article 18 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief."
Though he is just one man, Pastor Nadarkhani's case exemplifies the situation faced by many other Iranians of all faiths, who desire only to believe, worship, and live peaceably without the oppression of the state. As the world watches, will the regime in Tehran do right?
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Dan and Kori have great posts about U.S. policy towards Pakistan. Dan seems to suggest that we should war game what it would look like to walk away from our 57-year-old alliance with Pakistan, come what may. Kori thinks that is impractical and we are stuck with the ally we have, not with the ally we want. Both are primarily focused on Pakistan's foreign policy and how it affects American interests. But the thing we need to recognize is that Pakistan today is teetering on the brink of civil war, and this may be the greater danger to the United States than anything it does in Afghanistan or India.
According to the Brookings Index on Pakistan, insurgents, militants, and terrorists regularly launch more than 150 attacks on Pakistani government, military, and infrastructure targets per month, and have been for at least the last three years. Pakistan has deployed nearly 100,000 regular army soldiers to its western provinces since 2001 -- to combat fellow Pakistanis, not to counter an external threat. Nearly 3,000 soldiers have been killed in combat with militants since 2007. Tens of thousands of Pakistani civilians and militants -- the distinction between which is not always clear -- have been killed in daily insurgent and counterinsurgent operations that have accelerated dramatically in recent years across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and Baluchistan. Pakistan is facing its gravest domestic crisis since the Civil War of 1971 sundered the country in two and changed the map of South Asia.
The war is, broadly, between Islamist jihadists and the autocratic Pakistani Army. That is a vast simplification, because the jihadists are split into dozens of factions who all have different agendas, and the Pakistani military is hiding behind the fiction of civilian authority. (And, of course, the Pakistani military has ties to other militant groups and uses them as proxies in Afghanistan and India. They are mostly different groups from those waging an insurgency inside Pakistan). But the real contest for power is between those who want an Islamic State in all or part of Pakistan and those who want to continue the military-enforced secular order that has held power for most of Pakistan's national existence.
Neither side is very nice. Neither likes the United States very much. And neither side is committed to democracy or human rights. But between the two, the Pakistani military is plainly the better option. A jihadist-controlled nuclear Pakistan would be the gravest threat to American national security since the Axis Powers signed the Tripartite Pact in 1940 (more dangerous than the Soviet Union because the latter was more predictable and could be deterred). We need the military autocrats to win. We need them to win even though they support militant groups in Afghanistan, even though they actively oppose U.S. interests, even though they are themselves a source of instability and danger. If there were a third option, I'd take it, but there isn't.
That should be the starting point for U.S. Pakistan policy. It pains me to say it, but this is more important than the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan is too big to fail -- which, like Lehman, doesn't necessarily mean we can stop its failure, only that the consequences are so dire as to require our attention and effort. And for those bothered by the weakness of democracy in a military-controlled Pakistan, consider which side is more likely to consider reform and liberalization after the civil war is over.
That perspective I think can help us rethink through some of the issues Dan and Kori raised.
Military Aid. We should continue limited aid to the Pakistani military -- limited, that is, to counterinsurgency-relevant equipment and training. Helicopters and night-vision goggles, yes. F-16s and artillery, no. And we certainly should insist on more conditionality and transparency, even if that is unpopular with Pakistanis.
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On Saturday, Oct. 15, we will hold our second "Shadow Government Live Event," and all our readers are invited. Foreign Policy magazine and The Alexander Hamilton Society are co-sponsoring a Shadow Government panel discussion and reception in the L. Welch Pogue Room, Offices of Jones Day, 300 New Jersey Avenue, NW, 7th Floor in Washington, DC.
The festivities will run from 3 to 4:30 p.m., followed by a reception, and we will discuss what Shadow Government curator Peter Feaver has argued will be one of the main foreign policy questions of the 2012 presidential campaign: Is U.S. global leadership worth the price?
The panel, moderated by Foreign Policy's own Susan Glasser, will feature Shadow Government contributors Jamie Fly (Foreign Policy Initiative), Michael Green (Georgetown University & CSIS), Mary Habeck (Johns Hopkins University, SAIS), William Inboden (University of Texas at Austin), and Kristen Silverberg (former Ambassador to the EU).
Space is limited, so please register here as soon as you can.
This "Shadow Government Live Event" is part of a full-day conference sponsored by The Alexander Hamilton Society, a new, national organization dedicated to promoting constructive debate on basic principles and contemporary issues in foreign, economic, and national security policy. Shadow Government readers are welcome to attend the entire conference, compliments of Foreign Policy. Please take a look at the full agenda, and contact Mitchell Muncy, the Hamilton executive director, with questions.
The conversation on Oct. 15 should be great fun. We hope to see you there (especially our faithful, if, alas, usually critical, anonymous commenters!).
Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman said in two consecutive debates now that "We've given our all" to Afghanistan, which is why he believes it is time for U.S. troops to come home regardless of the consequences. Huntsman, and those who applauded him at the debate on Thursday night, is wildly off the mark. We have never even come close to giving our all.
Afghanistan is the second-cheapest major war in U.S. history as a percentage of GDP, according to the Congressional Research Service.
For the first five years of the mission, Afghanistan received less aid on a per-capita, per-year basis than any other major reconstruction and stabilization mission since the end of the Cold War, according to a series of RAND studies and my own research.
The international community also deployed fewer troops-per-capita than for any major stabilization or peace building mission in the same time frame.
Because so few troops served there and because the fighting was very low-level until recently, this is also one of the least lethal wars in our history. I honor the memory of every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine killed or wounded in this war, including several friends of mine. But we should not cheapen the memory of those lost in past wars by exaggerating our current conflict. As of Friday, 1,394 U.S. military personnel have been killed in action in Afghanistan, the smallest number of any major U.S. war in history.
Afghanistan was never perceived to be, or treated as the priority of U.S. efforts. When the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testifies to the U.S. Congress that "In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must," as Admiral Mullen famously did in 2007, you cannot possibly claim that we were "giving our all" to Afghanistan.
Huntsman is riffing off the sense that the war in Afghanistan has simply lasted a very long time, which surely must mean that we've been trying really hard, and if we haven't succeeded by now, we probably never will. He is wrong on his facts and his analysis. The Taliban insurgency began in 2005, so the war is only six years old. Even if you consider the war to be 10 years old, it is still shorter than the U.S. interventions in the Philippines (1898 - 1913), Haiti (1915 - 1934), the full stretch of Vietnam (1954 - 1973), and what the U.S. Army calls the Indian Wars (1865 - 1898). This is not the United States' "longest war," contrary to the media's mythmaking. Nor, as demonstrated above, have we been trying very hard for ten years or even five years.
Our concerted effort to actually wage a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan began slowly in 2007 and picked up steam in 2009. The problem is not that we have been trying so hard for so long but failed, but that for so long we failed to try very hard at all. Huntsman should really give the United States a chance to succeed before declaring failure.
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The commentariat is having a field day zinging Governor Perry for his response to the 3 am phone call question in the most recent Republican primary debate. Perry's response was indeed rambling, though perhaps not wandering so far afield as some commentators have claimed. Even though he seemed to misstate who rejected whom on the India-F-16 deal, Perry was right that U.S.-India relations are intimately affected by, and themselves affect, U.S.-Pakistan relations. The effects are often pernicious, and improving relations with India does not always improve relations with Pakistan, but it would be folly to pretend that one can deal with Pakistan without factoring in how India affects Islamabad's strategic calculus.
What interests me about this exchange, however, is the difficulty of debating foreign policy in a sound-bite campaign. Of course, domestic policy is also complex and so the sound-bite constraint surely dumbs down debate in that arena as well. But at least in domestic policy, most Americans have first-hand experience with the issues in some format. Familiarity offers the hope that sound-bites are heuristics that link to a more complete visceral understanding of an issue. With foreign policy, even that hope goes beyond naive into the realm of far-farfetched.
This constraint also appears to operate with the reporters who are doing the questioning. Their command of domestic policy may be weak, but their command of foreign policy is noticeably weaker. Even when they have substantial experience and so should know better, they can mess it up -- consider the way one veteran reporter, Glenn Kessler, fumbled a fact-checking exercise on one of Perry's foreign policy stances.
It is not simply a matter of media bias. Even a media figure obviously sympathetic to one party can inadvertently confound a candidate from that side who is trying to advance a sophisticated foreign policy argument. Consider how Bill O'Reilly handled Mitt Romney in this exchange.
The interesting part of the exchange is not the bit about bin Laden. Rather, it's how O'Reilly expressed impatience with Romney's discussion of the Iran-Russia link.
Romney was advancing one of the most sophisticated foreign policy critiques I have heard in the current campaign: that Obama had simultaneously mishandled both the Russia and the Iranian files by making concessions to Russia on missile defense without getting in exchange comparable concessions on Iranian sanctions. Russia finally did make some token concessions, but this was after months of blocking efforts to put pressure on Iran. Romney's comments showed that he had a remarkably nuanced understanding of Obama's Iran policy and that he also understood the ways it intersected other policy lines. If he had had more time, perhaps Romney could have developed the critique further, pointing out how the missed opportunity was especially consequential because it intersected other missed opportunities on Iran.
But we won't know whether Romney could have developed the critique even further because his response was already too nuanced and long-winded for the television medium. I understand that television is an entertainment medium and that good entertainment requires snappy soundbites. But good foreign policymaking requires leaders to have a command of the issues -- yes even the boring parts of the issues. Before he got interrupted, Romney was showing that he had that command, at least on the Iran question. Yet it didn't seem to help him and may even have started to count against him.
I hope as the campaign unfolds there will be opportunities for the deeper exchanges of the sort Romney was trying to have and I hope the Republican nominee will be up to that task.
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The Obama administration is getting itself in trouble trying to satisfy both Beijing and the Congress by providing Taiwan with upgrades of its F-16 A/Bs instead of the new F-16 C/Ds Taipei has requested. Administration efforts this week to spin a skeptical Congress about what a great deal this is for our friends in Taipei only made matters worse.
By any objective measure Taiwan needs the additional -- not just retrofitted -- F-16s. The Taiwan Relations Act requires the United States to provide Taiwan with arms and services of a defensive nature. Commitments such as the Six Assurances provide clear policy guidance: decisions about Taiwan's military requirements should be made on the basis of Taiwan's defensive needs and not U.S. diplomatic relations with Beijing. U.S.-China relations are obviously important, but U.S. resolve in standing by our friends and allies is a critical backstop to ensure that our policy towards Beijing works. The PLA Air Force is growing in leaps and bounds, including the fast-tracking of stealth aircraft. Taiwan needs to replace its aging fleet of F-5s to keep planes in the air, let alone counter the PLAAF's rapidly growing advantage. Taipei repeatedly requested F-16 C/Ds only to be told by the Pentagon not to ask again. Leading officials in Taipei are now being quite open in their disappointment and concern at the U.S. decision not to provide the F-16 C/Ds.
Efforts to spin the A/B upgrades as an even better deal for Taiwan simply are not flying on the Hill, including among leading Democrats. There are three dubious arguments being deployed by the administration and its defenders. The first is that the retrofits can be done faster than the sale of new F-16s. Not only is this wrong, it is beside the point. As Taiwan retires older fighters such as the F-5s and Mirages (in part because France is no longer willing to supply the ROCAF because of Chinese pressure), the size of Taiwan's air force will shrink. Upgrading the F-16 A/Bs will cut that fleet in half for several years as the other half is being upgraded. The upgrades are necessary ... and so are new fighters. It's not politics ... it's math.
The second claim made against Taiwan's request is that the PLA would overwhelm them anyway. Ballistic missiles would destroy the ROCAF on the ground, it is said, but is this not the same operational challenge facing the U.S. Air Force in Japan and Korea and isn't the answer the same -- missile defense, hardening and redundancy? Others point to simulations that show the whole ROCAF being shot down in two hours by the PLAAF, but these simulations mistakenly assume that the ROCAF would scramble all their fighters in the first fight like the Battle of Britain, instead of preserving assets to attrit key PLA forces and continue the fight until international support is mobilized. More importantly, the U.S. decision to continue abiding by the TRA is itself a deterrent against Chinese use of force. Friends and foes in Asia will ask a reasonable question: if we are nervous about selling weapons, how willing would we be to actually fighting if it came to that?
The third claim thrown around is that the United States is helping maintain a positive environment for cross-Straits reconciliation with a "prudent" level of arms sales. Why then, is the architect of cross-Straits reconciliation, President Ma Ying-jeou, adamant that Taiwan needs adequate defense capabilities, including F-16 C/Ds, in order to continue rapproachment with Beijing from a position of strength?
We both expressed public frustration that in its final year the Bush administration chose not to respond to Taiwan's first request for F-16 C/Ds. However, President Bush had already approved 30 billion dollars worth of arms sales to Taiwan at that point. The Obama administration's current package merely finishes the remaining sales queued up by Bush and presents a Solomon like political compromise on the new tactical air requirement identified by Taiwan. The Pacific Command and the Air Force have been dutifully silent on what recommendations they gave the administration on Taiwan's tactical air needs a year ago, but one has to wonder how much that assessment was massaged over the last year to reach the current conclusion.
After some initial stumbles vis-à-vis China, the Obama administration has gone a long way to reassure friends and allies in Asia that the United States will not accommodate a rising China at their expense. The transparently self-restrained decision on Taiwan arms sales will set that strategy back.
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The Republican presidential debate in Florida on Tuesday focused again on jobs, taxes, and healthcare, with virtually no mention of Afghanistan, which is the United States' third-largest military deployment since Vietnam and fifth-largest since World War II. There was only passing mentions of terrorism, Iran, or China. This is especially odd given that the President does not have the power to create jobs, change the U.S. tax code, or revamp the health care system -- which is the burden of the private sector and the U.S. Congress, respectively -- but he does have the authority to conduct foreign policy and command the armed forces.
The debate contained just one back-and-forth on Afghanistan between Jon Hunstman, about whom the less said the better, and Rick Perry. This is Perry's first public comment on Afghanistan that I've seen of any length. Here it is, according to the CNN transcript:
[I]t's time to bring our young men and women home and as soon and obviously as safely as we can. But it's also really important for us to continue to have a presence there. And I think the entire conversation about, how do we deliver our aid to those countries, and is it best spent with 100,000 military who have the target on their back in Afghanistan, I don't think so at this particular point in time. I think the best way for us to be able to impact that country is to make a transition to where that country's military is going to be taking care of their people, bring our young men and women home, and continue to help them build the infrastructure that we need.
Perry advocates for a troop withdrawal "as soon and obviously as safely as we can," which probably means he is not in favor of a withdrawal at the price of outright defeat. He is also open to some kind of residual U.S. military presence, presumably for ongoing training and counterterrorism operations. He wants to complete the responsible transition to Afghan security forces. I'm not sure what he is getting at about delivering foreign aid with 100,000 troops with targets on their backs -- perhaps he is saying he is skeptical about how effective foreign aid can be in a country with an ongoing conflict, which makes sense. But then he is also in favor of continuing to help build infrastructure, presumably military infrastructure like roads, airports, and bases to help the Afghan security forces, and vital economic infrastructure, like roads (again) and electricity, to help the Afghans achieve economic self-sufficiency. I admit I'm reading a lot into his remarks, but that is always the case with transcripts.
All in all, Perry seems to be in company with Romney, articulating a cautious willingness to persist in Afghanistan, complete the transition to Afghan lead, yet be realistic about what's achievable there. The two leading candidates have staked out a middle position between, on the one hand, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, who advocate withdrawal regardless of the consequences, and, on the other, Michelle Bachman, who in an earlier debate seemed to advocate for persistence regardless of the cost (and who I suspect would be joined by Rick Santorum). The Perry-Romney position has the advantage of being both decent policy and, I think, good politics.
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Last month, three members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) -- Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Subcommittee Chairman Connie Mack (R- FL), and freshman member David Rivera (R-FL) sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing their concern over information they had received on suspicious activity involving Argentina, Venezuela, and Iran and asking the State Department to investigate whether any nuclear cooperation is at play between the three countries.
Rather than making any serious effort to look into the matter, however, State dismissed the legislators' queries within a matter of days with a perfunctory: "We have no reason to believe that Venezuela serves as an interlocutor between Iran and Argentina on nuclear issues, nor that Argentina is granting access to its nuclear technology."
Well, the members didn't have any reason to either -- until information started to coming to light that has raised disturbing questions.
Argentina-Iran nuclear ties are nothing new, dating from the 1980s. The reactor in Tehran is largely of Argentinean design and Argentina was shipping highly enriched uranium to Iran as late as 1993. That relationship, however, ended under intense U.S. pressure in the early 1990s and seemingly was severed forever as Iran's role in the terrorist bombings against Jewish targets in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994 came to light.
Still, Tehran never lost hope about restoring nuclear ties with Argentina and has made it a priority since. In 2009, the Iranian representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency publicly reaffirmed, "We are interested in buying [nuclear fuel] from any supplier, including Argentina."
Enter Hugo Chavez.
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The floodgates of Arab diplomatic restraint on Syria have finally been breached. In the past few days, both the Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab League issued their first official statements on the situation, expressing alarm at the Syrian government's excessive use of force and calling for an immediate end to violence. Even more important, the Gulf's most influential leader, Saudi Arabia's plainspoken King Abdullah, followed up with his own personal blast at the Assad regime, declaring that "What is happening in Syria is not acceptable to Saudi Arabia" and calling for a stop to "the killing machine." For good measure, the King recalled his ambassador from Damascus, a step immediately echoed by Kuwait and Bahrain. (Fellow GCC member, Qatar, actually closed its embassy last month).
True, none of the various statements called on Assad to step down. All urged the regime to implement meaningful reforms immediately. But don't be fooled. For the extraordinarily cautious Abdullah to move out against Assad so aggressively -- after almost five months of sitting idly on the sidelines -- is a sure sign that he's betting the Syrian tyrant's days are numbered.
The final straw for the Saudis appeared to be Assad's Ramadan Rampage, during which Syrian troops have laid waste to the cities of Hama and Deir az-Zour. Up to 300 civilians may have been slaughtered, making it by far the deadliest week of the five month old uprising, where the death toll now stands in excess of 2,000 souls. And no doubt most distressing of all for the Saudi monarch is the fact that the vast majority of the victims are fellow Sunnis.
Weeks ago, a senior Saudi official told me that, from the beginning of the Syrian upheaval, the King has believed that regime change would be highly beneficial to Saudi interests, particularly vis a vis the Iranian threat. "The King knows that other than the collapse of the Islamic Republic itself, nothing would weaken Iran more than losing Syria."
When pressed on why, then, the Saudis' response to the crisis had been so passive, my interlocutor essentially pinned the blame on uncertainty over U.S. policy. Risk-averse under the best of circumstances, the Saudis, he said, were especially loathe to take on the Iranian-Syrian axis on such an existential issue absent assurances of America's determination to see Assad gone. At least at that point in early July, the Saudis still claimed to "have no idea what outcome Obama really wants in Syria and what his strategy is to achieve it."
As I posted earlier, I have been in Singapore for a series of lectures and meetings with strategic studies specialists inside and outside of government, courtesy of the wonderful people at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. This was not my first visit to Southeast Asia, but it was my first (and hopefully not last) visit to Singapore.
I usually gain more from these exchanges than I give out, and that was the case this time. For folks who like to talk strategy -- and who like to sample extraordinary cuisines while doing so -- there is no place better than Singapore. Singapore is a tiny country, essentially a city-state, that punches well above its weight in international affairs both because of its record of economic success and because it takes seriously the need to think and act strategically. And, Singaporeans love to dine.
American visitors like myself get asked lots of tough questions and, since my visit coincided with the gruesome spectacle of the debt crisis, my answers often left me (and perhaps my audiences) second-guessing American power and purpose.
Still I had some takeaways:
Geostrategic tragedies happen when leaders hesitate to act and cling to beliefs in the face of all evidence. Prior to World War II, the British were confident that Singapore was an impregnable fortress, a "Gilbratar of the East." If the Japanese were foolhardy enough to attack it, the big guns on Singapore's hills would destroy the naval armada before it could reach the shore. And so they might have, if the Japanese had attacked from the sea. Instead, the Japanese launched an attack on the northern part of the Malaya peninsula and fought a bloody advance through the jungle in order to attack Singapore from Johore to the north, not, as the British expected, from the sea to the south. This strategic disaster unfolded over two months, so there was plenty of time for the British to adjust their defensive plans. But they didn't. Of course, the British also missed an opportunity perhaps to block the Japanese attack from the outset, if only the Brits had executed their planned preemptive raids to seize more advantageous terrain. But they didn't. And slowly, inexorably, the Japanese advanced until they trapped a very sizable British force in a tiny perimeter with limited water supplies. I kept asking myself as I visited those sites: are U.S. strategists clinging to mistaken beliefs that will come back to haunt us? Have we, through hesitation and uncertainty, ceded the initiative to forces that are not as complacent as we are?
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But I just read something that makes me wonder whether the real news from the pep rally got lost by the distraction of the rhetorical fireworks. According to Joshua Green at the Atlantic, Vice President Biden effectively told Rep. Barney Frank not to put much stock in the media coverage about negotiations between Iraq and the United States over a longer-term American presence in Iraq. Here is how Frank relayed the conversation to the reporter:
One other big story from [the caucus meeting] today, Biden was at the caucus, and I said I was upset about Afghanistan and Iraq. So Jack Lew says, "Well, we're winding them down." I said, "What do you mean, you're winding them down? I read Panetta saying that he's begging the Iraqis to ask us to stay." At which point Biden asserted himself and said -- there's clearly been a dispute between them within the administration -- "Wait a minute, I'm in charge of that negotiation, not Panetta, and we have given the Iraqis a deadline to ask us, and it is tomorrow, and they can't possibly meet it because of all these things they would have to do. So we are definitely pulling out of Iraq at the end of the year." That was very good news for me. That's a big deal. I said, "Yeah, but what if they ask you for an extension?" He said, "We are getting out. Tomorrow, it's over."
By late Tuesday, the Iraqis did sort of meet the deadline, so Biden's claim that "it's over" may have been premature. Hence, this report today in the Post: "U.S. officials on Wednesday welcomed Iraq's decision to negotiate with Washington on keeping some U.S. troops in the country into next year, seeing it as a move toward ending the months-long political stalemate that has complicated U.S. plans for a December withdrawal."
I find today's story far more comforting than the earlier account of the Biden-Frank exchange. The Post is describing an administration that is still committed to negotiating a relationship with Iraq that offers hope of preserving the fragile and hard-won strategic gains of the surge. The Biden-Frank exchange describes an administration that can only look at Iraq through the lens of an OMB balance sheet -- an administration that thinks "it's over." Perhaps Biden was simply indulging in more hyperbole of the "Republicans-are-terrorists" sort that the Democrats told themselves to soothe their feelings over the bruising debt fight. Or perhaps there was a garble between the reporter, Frank, and Biden. But someone with better access to the White House than I have should press the players in this story for clarification. And perhaps President Obama could identify who in the administration can speak authoritatively on Iraq and what they can authoritatively say about it.
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What role will national security issues play in the 2012 presidential campaign? Probably a small one, at most. All current signs point to both the primary and general elections turning on the economy -- especially jobs, the deficit and debt, and ObamaCare. Yet even if foreign policy is stuck at the back of the campaign bus, it won't be entirely absent. One of the leadership intangibles that voters will be assessing includes who they trust as president to have his or her "finger on the button," i.e., to fulfill the roles of commander-in-chief and diplomat-in-chief. Moreover, a foreign policy crisis -- such as an Iranian nuclear breakthrough, a terrorist attack, or any other unforeseen headline event -- could thrust national security back into the forefront of campaign debate.
As the GOP primary field takes shape, the candidates are spending most of their time figuring out how to distinguish themselves from each other. But it is not too early to begin thinking about how they should be distinguishing themselves from President Obama. Herewith a few foreign policy themes that GOP presidential candidates should consider highlighting as challenges to the Obama administration:
Diminished American power. America's economic woes are also a foreign policy concern. Historically, our nation's global strength has come from our economic prosperity, our values, and our military. The Obama administration's economic record of high unemployment, low growth, and crippling debt hurts most at home but also weakens our standing abroad. Yet in foreign policy terms, the White House seems to be acquiescent in this diminishing of American power. In the now infamous New Yorker article on the Obama administration's foreign policy, author Ryan Lizza portrays the White House holding the strategic assumption that American decline is a current reality and an inevitable future. The administration's embrace of this risks making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. During his final weeks as Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates raised his own pointed concerns about American decline:
I've spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower, and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position … It didn't have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time … To tell you the truth, that's one of the many reasons it's time for me to retire, because frankly I can't imagine being part of a nation, part of a government … that's being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world."
The Obama administration has presided over declining American power in specific ways such as Pentagon budget cuts, a burgeoning national debt, and new lows in American soft power in key regions such as the Middle East. Even more fundamentally, as Ryan Streeter laments over at the indispensable ConservativeHomeUSA, under Obama the United States seems to be losing its character as an aspirational nation and global model.
Declining American leadership. Rarely in the annals of American diplomacy has an unattributed quote from a "senior White House official" become an instant headline, persisted as an unflattering tagline for the Obama Doctrine, and offered campaign fodder for every possible GOP candidate. But that's exactly what "leading from behind" has become, following its appearance in the aforementioned New Yorker article. No doubt the official who uttered it at the time thought that he/she was coming up with a clever formulation to satisfy multiple constituencies while displaying the administration's strategic acumen. When it reality what it did is distill and confirm the worst suspicions of many observers of this administration's foreign policy: the White House is uncomfortable displaying American leadership in the world. This is manifest in ways including France and Britain's leadership of the Libya campaign and continued frustration over American passivity, in the White House's reluctance to provide visible support for dissidents in Iran and Syria, and in the worries from our Asian partner nations such as India and Japan about the strength of America's commitments. Yet a world without American leadership will be a less secure, less prosperous, less peaceful, and less free world.
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My FP colleagues Steve Walt and Daniel Drezner have recently weighed in on a topic near and dear to my heart: the gap between academic political science and the policy world. This is a longstanding concern that has been the subject of much talk and some action my entire professional life. Since I am also a card-carrying yakademic (a term one of my National Security Council colleagues introduced to me back when I worked in the Clinton White House -- he always smiled when he said it so I am sure it was a term of endearment), I sympathize with much of what they and numerous others (see here and here) have to say.
Yet I believe that the enduring discussion would be stronger if we let go of some myths.
Myth 1: Academics bring bias-free insights into a policy debate cluttered by biased policymakers. This is a myth that tends to be peddled by folks who have had a heavy foot in the academy and have only dipped a toe or two into the policy world. In my experience, academics are just as biased as, and in some cases more biased than, policymakers. Policymakers have a partisan bias, a worldview bias, and a policy commitment bias (eg., if a policymaker advocated for a policy initially he may be predisposed to support it despite evidence that it is faltering, and vice-versa).
Academics also have a partisan bias and a worldview bias. The chief difference is that academics tend to give jargon terms to their worldviews and they tend to reinforce them with an additional layer of method bias -- that is, viewing the world primarily through the narrow lens of whatever methodological tool they have mastered in the academy. Academics also have policy bias -- if they supported or opposed a policy, I have found they have tended to have just the same commitment to their prior stance as any policymaker.
Academics have a further source of bias that is not as prevalent in the policymaker world: a skewed marketplace of ideas where the people they spend the most time arguing with come from a very narrow slice of the ideological spectrum. Academic debates are vigorous and vicious, but rarely do academics have to try to persuade people from outside their small epistemic community within the academy (a self-selected pool within a self-selected pool), let alone someone from all the way on the other side of the policy spectrum. Put another way, many academics spend too much time in an echo chamber and as a consequence tend to develop the kinds of prejudices that they rightly decry when they see it in others (e.g., the view that people who disagree with them must be stupid or venal).
Myth 2: Academics bring theory, method, and factual expertise to policy debates, but only factual expertise is valuable. This is a myth that tends to be peddled by folks who have had a heavy foot in the policy world and have only dipped a toe or two into the academy. Thus, a policymaker might consult a regional specialist for insight into, say, the tribal complexities of Pakistani society, but his eyes will glaze over if the academic mentions theory or method. Those other things, I have heard too many policymakers say, are just esoterica that detract from real knowledge.
Most of my academic colleagues do have a great deal of factual expertise but not, in my experience, significantly more factual expertise than the top-line policy experts that populate administrations (Republican or Democratic). In fact, most of my academic international relations/security colleagues (that is people who do not focus on a specific country or region) do not have any firmer grasp on factual knowledge than the best people I have worked with in government; indeed, for reasons I get to below, they might even have less. What they can bring to the table, however, is a rigor that comes from making theoretical claims explicit and using appropriate methods to evaluate them. The very best academics also can bring to the table a healthy respect for the limits of their methods, and thus for the limits of the claims they and others can make. The chief difference in this regard between policymakers and academics is that policymakers use theory and method implicitly whereas academics use them explicitly (or at least they should).
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I know the U.S. is still recovering from the financial crisis.…Under such circumstances, it is still spending a lot of money on its military. Isn't that placing too much pressure on the taxpayers? If the U.S. could reduce its military spending a little and spend more on improving the livelihood of the American people and doing more good things for the world -- wouldn't that be a better scenario?"
This was the Chinese People's Liberation Army Chief of General Staff Gen. Chen Bingde's suggestion to Americans during the visit of his counterpart Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen. Well, we are obliging the Chinese general -- at least in part. We are cutting defense. General Chen would be especially happy to know that in particular we are foregoing investment in the types of systems that help keep us "present" in Asia -- though Admiral Mullen assured Asian audiences that we will be there for the long haul. Whether we are cutting defense in order to improve the livelihood of the American people is a separate, hotly debated question. Color me skeptical.
But on the first part of General Chen's suggestion, here is how we are heeding his advice. We are not properly resourcing: a) the submarines the Navy says it needs, or, for that matter, the number of ships in its own shipbuilding plan; b) stealthy tactical aircraft (by the Air Force's own account, they will face an 800-fighter shortfall later this decade); and c) a long-range bomber, now called "the long-range strike family of systems," particularly by those who think this system is silver bullet for our Asia posture. We were supposed to be deploying new bombers by 2018. Not a chance. The program is estimated to cost $40-50 billion in total, and respected aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia predicts that we will not see a new bomber until well into the next decade. Yes, that's right, a new bomber somewhere in the 2020s.
So General Chen, no need to worry about our defense spending -- we will not have enough submarines or tactical aircraft, and there is no new bomber on the horizon. All are supposed to play a role in the much vaunted AirSea Battle strategy that is our answer to China's growing military power.
But Mullen insists, as did Secretary Gates and other top U.S. leaders, we will still be there for our friends and our allies. Given the numbers, the next time a leading U.S. official insists that we are going to be "present" in Asia, journalists have a duty to ask, "With what?"
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Is there an ideological basis for the emerging rivalry between the United States and the People's Republic of China? This question is at the heart of an article that I recently published in The National Interest and which I address at greater length in my forthcoming book.
It is sometimes said that because China is no longer a "Communist country" ideology is no longer a factor in U.S.-China relations. Like most truisms about China ("economic growth will lead inevitably to democracy;" "treat China like an enemy and it will become one") this one is, at best, only partly true. China's present leaders may not longer be Marxists, but they are most certainly Leninists; they believe that the one party authoritarian regime they lead should continue in power and they are determined to crush any opposition or dissent. Preserving CCP rule is the ultimate aim of all elements of Chinese policy, foreign as well as domestic.
As seen from Beijing, the United States appears as a crusading liberal democratic hegemon, intent on undermining the authority of regimes of which it disapproves and ultimately of remaking the entire world in its own image. This fear colors the Chinese government's perception of every aspect of U.S. policy and shapes its assessment of America's activities across Asia, which it believes are aimed at encircling it with pro-U.S. democracies.
The American people, meanwhile, are inclined to view with skepticism and distaste a regime that they regard as oppressive, illiberal, and potentially aggressive. While it is usually dressed in diplomatic language, the long-term aim of U.S. policy towards China is, in fact, to encourage "regime change," albeit gradually and by peaceful means.
Differences in ideology thus tend to heighten the mistrust and competitive impulses that are rooted in the dynamics of geopolitics. Since Athens and Sparta, dealings between dominant powers and fast-rising potential challengers have always been fraught with tension and have often resulted in conflict. Relations between the United States and China were never going to be smooth but, for as long as it persists, the ideological gap that now separates them is going to make it much harder to achieve a stable modus vivendi.
Now for the good news: if China does liberalize there is good reason to hope that relations between the two Pacific powers will improve, perhaps markedly. Hardcore "realists" doubt this, arguing that China's interests and policies will remain essentially the same, regardless of the character of its domestic regime. But this is a dubious assertion. A strong, democratic China would certainly seek a leading role in its region. But it would also be less fearful of internal instability, less threatened by the presence of democratic neighbors, more confident of its own legitimacy, and less prone to seek validation at home through the domination and subordination of others. For its part, while it will resist the efforts of an authoritarian regime to displace it from the region, the United States would probably be willing eventually to relinquish its position in Asia to a democratic China.
Pity poor Lebanon. Earlier this month, the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad imposed a government in Beirut dominated by the terrorist group, Hezbollah -- which, as it happens, we were reminded just this morning, likely carried out the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. Before our very eyes, the Lebanon of not-so-distant memory -- pluralist, free-wheeling, open to the West and the values of liberalism -- is being snuffed out by U.S. enemies. And by all appearances, no one can really be bothered, including, sadly enough, the Obama administration.
Six months ago, the pro-Western Saad Hariri (Rafiq's son) walked into an Oval Office meeting with President Obama as Lebanon's prime minister. He walked out a mere caretaker. Syria and Hezbollah chose precisely that moment to collapse his government. The immediate cause was Hariri's refusal to comply with the demand that he terminate his government's support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) -- whose first indictments, handed down today, finger Hezbollah for carrying out the horrific bombing that killed his legendary father.
But the gambit to take down Saad was also widely understood to have a more strategic purpose, a humiliating slap at Obama and the United States. The message could not have been clearer: Such will be the fate of the United States' friends who dare defy the ascendant Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis. Obama, and Washington, can do nothing to protect you.
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Stephen Hayes over at the Weekly Standard presents a very intriguing angle to the civil-military story behind President Obama's Afghanistan decision. He is emphasizing the wrong part, however.
At issue is the extent to which the senior commanders endorsed the option that President Obama selected: truncating the surge and rushing the withdrawal in a fashion that interrupts the 2012 fighting season (but dove-tails with the 2012 presidential campaign season). As Hayes demonstrates, the White House sought to depict the president's decision as one well within a range of options developed by the military. According to Petraeus' successor, Lieutenant General John Allen, however, the option Obama picked was not on the menu. Obama's plan -- presumably the arbitrary summer 2012 deadline and perhaps also the numbers involved -- was apparently devised elsewhere, perhaps by White House advisors.
Hayes emphasizes that President Obama over-ruled Petraeus's advice, which is true but, as I have argued, he was well within his rights as commander-in-chief. On this, I point to no less an authority than General Petraeus himself. From a civil-military point of view, it is important to know whether or not the military refused to even present this as an option: it would have been inappropriate if they had tried to tie the hands of the president in that fashion. But if they did in fact present a range of options that included ones they thought too risky, and then President Obama chose yet another still-riskier option, that would not constitute a civil-military foul by either side. It is worth knowing whether the military endorsed the option, but that should not be viewed as the dispositive factor.
To me, the most important part of the Hayes story is that, if accurate and complete, it means the White House did not tell the truth about the military advice it received. Rather than admit that the president listened carefully to his generals and then chose something that they did not recommend, someone at the White House tried to pretend that the president simply chose among a range of options endorsed by the military. This is a subtle difference, but in civil-military terms it is a profound one. Civilians do not owe the military prerogatives over policy choices; they do owe the military a decision-making process in which the military voice can be heard and in which military views will be faithfully described to those authorized to hold the president accountable on these decisions, namely us.
If the president wants to elicit from the military an option and an endorsement of an option that the military does not initially prefer, as President Bush did with his Iraq surge, then he must engage in the lengthy back-and-forth that President Bush engaged in, cajoling the military into something resembling a consensus. The president does not have to do that -- he can simply decide, as President Obama did -- but he owes the military (and the voter) to tell the truth about what he did.
Ironically, if this story is true, the White House has just replicated the Johnson-McNamara error that was at the heart of H.R. McMaster's influential Dereliction of Duty account of the Vietnam War. Although many read McMaster's book as accusing the senior generals of dereliction for going along with Johnson's decision to escalate the war more gradually than they thought prudent, in fact McMaster's primary point was that the generals were derelict in going along with Johnson and McNamara's willful misrepresentation to Congress and the American people about the content of the military advice. What McMaster wanted the generals to do was simply tell Congress what their advice had been, correcting the record that Johnson and McNamara had muddied by pretending that their Vietnam decisions were consonant with military counsel.
To their credit, today's senior military leadership have not been derelict. They have saluted and obeyed their commander-in-chief. And they have not shrunk from telling the truth about their military views to Congress, even if it contradicts White House spin. Based on what is in the public record thus far, I cannot give so positive an evaluation to the civilian participants.
The president has a right to be wrong, but he does not have a right to lie about it. As Tom Ricks has argued, the Obama Administration already faces some serious civil-military challenges in the post Gates-Petraeus-Lute era (Lieutenant General Doug Lute has been a key civil-military interface in his role as White House coordinator on Aghanistan-Pakistan issues). Those challenges could quickly become insurmountable if they compound risky strategy choices with serious misrepresentations of the military position.
I hope those with better access to the president than I have will impress upon him the importance of clarifying this matter as quickly as possible. Perhaps the current story has a garble, and the anonymous White House official was misunderstood. I hope so, because otherwise I fear a civil-military rot will set in that could be quite corrosive to national security.
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President Obama's decision on the Afghan withdrawal was classic Obama. He split the difference between two coherent positions -- 1) withdraw as little as possible to maximize the chance of success versus 2) withdraw as much as possible to maximize political gain -- and came up with a middle-of-the-road muddle. It's clear that Obama and his advisors approach these decisions as politicians, not strategists.
But even then, the decision didn't make a whole lot of sense. The biggest political risk Obama faces is losing Afghanistan just in time for next year's election: I see no good reason not to keep as many forces in country as possible, just for self-interested political reasons, let alone what's best for U.S. security. Peter Feaver and Max Boot, among others, have had insightful analyses of the decision and its tangled rationales.
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President Obama's Afghanistan decision sounded the death-knell to two storylines. They are dead, at least for now, but not, I suspect, gone forever.
The first storyline is one I had peddled myself: the curious disappearance of the vice president from the major foreign policy action of 2011. Whether it was the Arab Spring, the war (excuse me, the minor overseas contingency operation that doesn't rise to the level of armed hostilities) in Libya, or the tough-but-right call to take out bin Laden with SEALs rather than with airstrikes -- in all of those dramas, Biden played no more than a bit part.
Well, whether that storyline ever had much validity before, it sure does not now. Biden is back. In on the record briefings, White House officials are touting Biden's role in Obama's decision to overrule his generals and shift backwards to a light-footprint-focus-on-terrorism posture. (By the way, this "new" posture bears more than a passing resemblance to the one Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld put in place from 2002-2006 -- the one that candidate Obama decried as inadequate.)
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Because of a day in air travel purgatory, I have been unable to comment on President Barack Obama's Afghanistan decision and his rare prime-time address on war. With the "benefit" of an additional day of musing and reading other people's commentary, I have three somewhat contradictory takes. First, it seems clear that he is putting the country on an extraordinarily risky course, one that could jeopardize much of the gains achieved by his West Point surge. Second, he has not presented to the country a sound strategic rationale for why he is doing it this way, leaving the obvious alternative -- that this decision was driven by his electoral interests rather than the best national security interests of the country -- a more plausible explanation than it should otherwise be. But third, at least from the parochial perspective of civil-military relations theory, Obama is within his rights to make the decision in the way that he did, and so far, the senior military have behaved in an exemplary fashion.
The first point has been made well by my Shadow Gov colleague, Kori Schake. As was the case with his West Point surge, the president has hobbled the kinetic leg of his strategy with the self-inflicted diplomatic/political wound of signaling lack of resolve. As a result, not only will the coalition have fewer forces than the generals believe they require to implement the overall strategy effectively -- probably much fewer, as our allies respond to the dog whistle "retreat" sounding from the president's decision and accelerate their rush to the exits -- but those forces will be facing an enemy that has good reason to believe that time is on its side. The military brass report that the new course just might work, but it will be a very close run thing.
The second point has also been made by others. Since the military logic of the move is so weak, one naturally looks for some other explanation, such as a political angle. The president's decision to interrupt next summer's fighting season makes no military sense whatsoever; better to let the troops finish the fighting season and come home in the late fall or winter. But that would be after the election. So far as I have been able to determine, that is the only explanation of the timeline that makes sense, but I am open to hearing a convincing counterargument. I am very reluctant to charge a president with elevating domestic political interests over national security ones because I remember how unfairly Democrats made that charge against President George W. Bush -- and that was on a much more flimsy evidentiary basis. Yet, when I look for a more compelling alternative explanation, I can't find one. Certainly not in the speech, which, as Dov Zakheim pointed out, was strategically incoherent. Given how rarely he has spoken about Afghanistan, it is unfortunate that he squandered this rhetorical moment.
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Tomorrow the House Foreign Affairs Committee is holding a joint subcommittee hearing on "Venezuela's Sanctionable Activity." The hearing follows the Obama administration's recent announcement of sanctions against Venezuela's state-owned oil company and a military armaments entity for illicit dealings with Iran.
Congress has been at the forefront in pressing the administration to further unravel the dangerous Venezuela-Iran relationship to identify and sanction activities found to be aiding Iran's international sanctions-busting campaign and that threaten U.S. security interests. There is no shortage of opportunities. It is, as they say, a target-rich environment.
In fact, the next target should be the Venezuelan airline Conviasa, which is operating secretive weekly flights between Venezuela, Iran, and Syria. We do not know for certain who or what is aboard these flights because passengers are not subject to immigration and customs controls and cargo manifests are not made public.
Published reports, however, indicate the flights are ferrying terrorists and weapons between the Western Hemisphere and the Middle East, meaning that that these flights should be targeted immediately using Treasury Department anti-terrorism authorities.
For example, it was widely reported that Abdul Kadir, a Guyanese national who is serving a life sentence for his role in the 2007 terrorist plot to explode fuel tanks and pipelines at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, was arrested in Trinidad as he was attempting to board a flight to Venezuela. From there, he was to planning to continue on to Iran on the Conviasa flight.
President Obama's speech was a jumble of internal contradictions. On the one hand, the president rightly said that there would be no safe haven "from which al Qaida or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland or our allies." But he also said that after the initial reduction of 33,000 troops, "our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace ... [and] by 2014, this process of transition will be complete." He gave no indication that a significant force, or indeed any U.S. force, would remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
The president asserted that "so long as I am president, the United States will never tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill us." To this end he promised to work with the government of Pakistan, and to hold Islamabad to its "commitments." Ronald Reagan wisely counseled that "presidents should never say never." Obama evidently is prepared to ignore that advice. Has Pakistan in fact promised to make its territory available for drone strikes for the indefinite future? How exactly will the president keep his pledge if Pakistan refuses to let us operate drones against safe havens on its territory?
The president stated unequivocally that "those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution." Yet he also said that "America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban." Does that mean that the Taliban need not meet the president's conditions before the United States was prepared to include the Taliban? And if not, why is the United States talking to the Taliban today?
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President Obama was sharply critical of the Bush administration for under-resourcing the war in Afghanistan; with his rapid drawdown of forces and funding announced last night, President Obama now deserves the same criticism.
President Obama has ordered a reduction of 10,000 troops by the end of this year and another 23,000 by the end of 2012, and they will "continue coming home at a steady pace" through 2014, when "the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security." He argued success on the battlefields of Afghanistan and elsewhere allow us to fight in a new way -- a new way from 18 months ago, which was the last time he changed direction -- and to focus on nation building at home instead of abroad.
Make no mistake: the president's choices went against the advice of both the war's military leadership and Secretary Gates' recommendations. Understanding the deference the American public has for our military's judgment on the wars, the White House is aggressively trying to spin the president's policy as supporting our military commanders and as a gradual reduction in the force. Neither of those are true.
President Obama's drawdown announced tonight is more than six times the reduction recommended by our military leaders and endorsed by Secretary Gates. The military leadership advocated withdrawing only 3,000-5,000 staff and support troops before 2013, so that front line fighting forces would be able to consolidate gains in the south and take the fight to the last of the Taliban strongholds in the east.
Drawing down troop levels before the objectives are met will increase strain on the forces fighting in Afghanistan. It will increase the risk they run by stretching them thinner across the demands, and it will likely increase the time it takes them to achieve the objectives, putting the president's 2014 conclusion of the war in doubt. It will put diplomats and development experts operating in Afghanistan at greater risk, too. And it will reignite concern by governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan that we are more concerned about the exit than the strategy.
It was the president's political advisors that advocated withdrawals of 15,000-30,000 troops -- and the president decided on the highest number of their high numbers. They see high levels of public dissatisfaction with the duration of the war and have suddenly realized the war is expensive (although the costs have not increased over projections from 18 months ago, when the president approved this policy). Given how little this president has invested in shaping public attitudes about the war, what is remarkable is that more Americans aren't opposed. He has been leading from behind again.
As Secretary Gates said last Sunday in rebuffing calls for a reduction larger than 5,000 troops, "we can do anything the president tells us to do, the question is whether it is wise." The president's decision to withdraw 30,000 troops from Afghanistan before 2013 is unwise; it increases the risk of achieving his objectives, the risk to our military forces and diplomats operating in Afghanistan, and the risk of ending this war in 2014.
The crucial question President Obama did not answer in his speech is why he is sending soldiers and Marines to fight in Afghanistan if he is unwilling to commit the resources to consolidate the gains they risked their lives to achieve. This is worse than strategic incoherence. It is morally wrong.
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President Obama is apparently going to announce the extent and pace of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this week. His decision, in December 2009, to begin the withdrawal in July 2011 was never a good idea because it gave the Taliban the incentive to simply wait us out and accelerate the U.S. public's war fatigue. The best Obama can do now is mitigate the damage by highlighting our hard-won progress of the last two years and telling the American people that stability in Afghanistan is both important and possible, that it will take patience, and that our withdrawal will be measured, slow, and not come at the risk of defeat.
We'll see how Obama measures up to this. Meanwhile, an equally interesting question is, how do the Republican presidential candidates measure up? With the exception of Mitt Romney, not very well.
Leading neoconservative Republicans criticized front-runner Mitt Romney for his statement on Afghanistan during the Republican presidential debate last week. But I think his comment was actually one of the better statements on Afghanistan, compared with the others we've heard recently. Here's what he actually said: "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals that we can hand the country over to the [Afghan] military in a way that they're able to defend themselves ... I think we've learned some important lessons in our experience in Afghanistan. I want those troops to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals. But I also think we've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis [sic] can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban."
In other words, we should 1) heed the military's professional judgment, 2) withdraw based on conditions on the ground, and 3) resist withdrawing just to save a buck, and 4) demand more accountability from the Afghans. That's actually pretty good.
By contrast, Newt Gingrich did not directly address the issue of how many troops should be withdrawn, but he did say regarding foreign policy that "the price tag is always a factor." That's true in a trite and uninteresting sense: You don't want to bankrupt yourself unless your very survival is at stake. But Afghanistan is not bankrupting the U.S. Treasury. Much has been made about the price tag of the Afghanistan war, but the reality is that $100 billion per year is peanuts compared with what Iraq cost at its height and less than peanuts compared with the trillions we spend on entitlements and the broader defense budget. Gingrich seemed to imply that we can't afford the Afghanistan war: No one has yet explained how we can afford the consequences of rapid withdrawal.
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According to press reports, President Obama will soon clarify one of the lingering mysteries about his Afghanistan policy: what he meant by the July 2011 deadline he imposed on the "West Point surge" he announced in December 2009. If the advance leaks are any indication, Obama is under some pressure to replace one form of strategic confusion with another.
The arbitrary timeline generated considerable confusion after the West Point speech, with senior administration officials contradicting each other in background interviews and occasionally even on the record. Since the West Point surge was itself a product of a compromise -- it split the difference between advisors who wanted to jettison Obama's campaign critique of Bush-era Afghan policy so as to shift back to a Rumsfeldian light-footprint posture and those advisors who advocated nearly the opposite approach of replicating Bush's Iraq surge in Afghanistan -- the timeline had the awkward feel of a hybrid policy based on contradictory premises. One premise was that cooperation from locals depended on them not taking U.S. support for granted. The other premise was that cooperation from locals depended on them not hedging against U.S. abandonment. The West Point surge adopted the kinetics implied by the second premise, but undercut the policy with the rhetorical posture implied by the first premise.
The resulting internal strategic incoherence yielded a heavy dollop of public strategic confusion. Many observers recognized this was a mistake. Occasionally an insider would concede as much in private but publicly the administration stoutly defended the contradiction.
The contradiction has now played itself out and it is time for Obama to reveal his thinking. In an eerie parallel with the earlier debate, some advisors want him to rush the end of the Afghan surge and declare that all surge troops will be out within a year. Other advisors want him to announce a token withdrawal -- sort of a down payment on further reductions -- but keep most of the combat power in place through several more Afghan fighting seasons. The compromise position appears to be announcing an arbitrary deadline for the withdrawal of all surge troops -- well, not that arbitrary since it will happen to coincide with the presidential elections -- but delegating to the military the pace and timing of the withdrawals.
The Obama war pattern has been to split such differences and to adopt a policy that has more kinetic punch than the doves want but to frame (and in some cases, to undercut) that kinetic punch with dovish concessions. The betting money is that he will do the same thing this time. The result is a policy that neither fully satisfies nor fully enrages either side. There is enough hawkish punch to achieve some battlefield results (or, in the case of Iraq, to forestall a battlefield collapse) but not enough to maximize the chances for success.
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President Obama has before him an opportunity to promote U.S. values and a more comprehensive policy toward Russia because of the political and economic needs of Vladimir Putin and his "court." The right action now will promote U.S. interests, arguably the interests of the Russian people, and make it possible for the United States to have a better relationship with what we hope will be a more democratic Russian government in the not too distant future.
Russia's Prime Minister and de facto power center, Putin, currently finds his position not as stable as he'd like it to be. Poll numbers for his party remain low, cynicism remains high, all around him many of the world's autocrats and corrupt regimes are collapsing or wobbling, and the Russian economy and standard of living is stagnating even in a time of high oil prices.
This perhaps explains Russia's renewed effort to gain entrance into the WTO. This is good news in and of itself as free trade is a boon to all countries, but the U.S. policy should not be simply to say "amen" and push for Russia's accession with no other considerations. Russia's desire to join the WTO is just one of several levers that the president can use as part of a strategy to support Russia's becoming a more democratic country and the delegitimization of those trying to return it to tsarism.
The strategy the president should pursue could be comprised of three parts. First, a "reset" on U.S. policy toward Russia in terms of how we react to the government's treatment of dissidents and democratic activists. This effort is actually already in motion in that the president plans to nominate Michael McFaul to be the next ambassador to the Russian Federation. Dr. McFaul is a well-known and respected expert on Russia; but more importantly, he is an expert on democratic development and a firm supporter of same. His nomination alone sends a strong signal that the Obama administration is serious about its concerns regarding Russian politics. McFaul should go to Moscow with the full backing of the president to be an influential voice for democratic governance; he should be instructed to meet with dissidents and democratic activists. The timing is excellent: some of the best known democratic leaders in Russia have formed a new party and petitioned the government to allow it to participate officially. The U.S. position should be clear that such a party should be welcomed. Perhaps Putin will grasp that doing this makes Russia look good for WTO purposes if he needs a reason beyond just doing the right thing.
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In Paul Miller's excellent post below, he makes a persuasive case that much of the European reluctance to make the necessary resource commitments to NATO stems from a decades-long "rational choice" to free ride under the American security umbrella. I think Paul is largely correct, but would add that there is an additional dimension of culture and historical memory that also shapes the European mindset on defense.
Last week when Secretary Gates gave his Brussels speech, I happened to be on vacation with my wife in southern France. We spent a few days touring the French countryside and its many villages. As enchanting as each village was, with their timeless stone houses, quiet streams, and idyllic vineyards, every last town center also featured a monument to death, in the form of an obelisk listing the names of the men of the village who had died in World War I. These monuments, each one bearing witness to scores of names, serve for the French as inescapable reminders of the carnage and costs of war. In France's case, this meant the deaths of 1.3 million of its soldiers in the Great War alone. Even as the World War I generation has now passed from the scene, such obelisks, and their comparable memorials in other European countries, continue to shape Europe's collective memory - a memory further seared by the Great War's even bloodier sequel.
This traumatic twentieth century history forms much of the prevailing twenty-first century European worldview on security issues. The German Marshall Fund's invaluable annual survey, Transatlantic Trends, offers one of the most vivid illustrations of these transatlantic differences. According to the most recent 2010 edition of the survey, "when asked whether they agree that war is necessary to obtain justice under some circumstances, three-quarters of Americans (77%) and only one-quarter of EU respondents (27%) agreed. Although both numbers are up slightly from last year, these numbers have largely remained the same over the past several years and represent a significant and lasting divide in American and European public opinion....The differences are even more pronounced when considering 49% of Americans and only 8% of EU respondents agree strongly."
For Europeans, despite the European Union's prevailing economic woes, the EU's great political achievement has been forging the bonds and identity that make another continent-wide war almost unthinkable. And as Paul points out, NATO's formation after World War II may have been prompted most immediately by the Soviet threat, but it also played an important role in the Franco-German reconciliation and the foundations for European peace.
While American policy-makers should be mindful of how this historical sensibility influences European choices, this is not to excuse those choices. In Europe's case, the fact that history helps shape a culture does not mean that history should determine a culture. As a matter of policy, Secretary Gates' sharp critique is correct, both in its substance and tone. European nations do need to increase their defense budgets and their political will to use force for alliance missions, whether in Afghanistan or Libya or future conflicts. Just as Europe has largely been able to escape its past of catastrophically destructive continent-wide wars, Europe also needs to escape its more recent past of anemic commitments to security.
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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.