The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, former Secretary General Kofi Annan, reported to the Security Council yesterday that the government of Bashir al-Assad has agreed to a cease-fire commencing April 10th. Annan also reported there has been no abatement of the violence by the government of Syria against its citizens. Assad's government is estimated by the U.N. to have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year, when Syrians began demanding the rights we Americans consider universal.
In that year, the Obama administration has gingerly moved away from defending Bashir al-Assad. When thousands of people had already been victims of murder by their own government in Syria, Secretary of State Clinton described Assad as a "reformer" who should be supported by the United States. Astonishingly, she contrasted him with Arab despots we supported protests against.
While Obama administration policy has improved somewhat with the advance of revolutions in the Middle East, it continues to chase rather than positively affect change. Our president now concedes that Assad should step down, but endorses a U.N. peace plan that would leave the murderer of nine thousand in power. Moreover, the Obama administration considers itself restricted from intervening in Syria because Vladimir Putin shields a fellow despot with Russia's vote in the U.N. Security Council.
So while Assad's forces shell neighborhoods in Homs and Hama, Secretary Clinton promises communications equipment to the disparate Syrian opposition. Make no mistake: Syrians are paying the price for our diplomatic nicety. They understand it, and those who would challenge despotism elsewhere understand that the United States is moving slowly enough that the Assad government may well succeed in breaking the resistance before we are of any help.
In fact, the Assad government seems to believe they're close to crushing the resistance: Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi declared as much last week, and the April 10th timeline agreed to by Assad for the U.N. peace plan is probably intended to allow consolidation of government gains against the resistance.
By valuing a United Nations mandate more than we value the lives of Syrians, we have given authoritarian governments a veto on our ethical responsibilities -- multilateralism trumps morals. It is discouraging that our government champions this concession as though it were a virtue.
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In my last post, I sketched out the strategic case for significantly deepening U.S.-Kurdish ties. While such a paradigm shift may take some time, a good start can be made simply by clearing out the underbrush of counter-productive policies that needlessly hinder our relations with the Kurds. During this week's visit to Washington by President Masoud Barzani, head of Iraq's Kurdistan regional government, the Obama administration would be well-served by focusing on several practical deliverables:
Stop Treating the Kurds as Terrorists. Incredibly, under existing immigration law, members of Iraq's two main Kurdish parties -- Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- are classified as terrorists when seeking visas to enter the United States. As modified after 9/11, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) uses a definition of terrorism so broad that virtually any resistance group that in the past engaged in armed conflict against its government is considered a so-called "Tier III" terrorist organization. Membership in such a group is automatic grounds for denial of admission to the U.S., treatment that extends to the member's family as well.
That's right: The KDP and PUK for years worked hand-in-glove with the United States to bring down the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein. After 2003, they served as America's most faithful allies in efforts to stabilize Iraq. And for all their trouble fighting alongside U.S. forces they got . . . well, they got labeled as terrorists, of course. As Mr. Bumble famously says in Oliver Twist, "If the law supposes that . . . [then] the law is an ass -- an idiot."
In 2009, Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Homeland Security Napolitano exercised their discretionary authority to exempt members of the KDP and PUK from the INA's terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds on a case-by-case basis -- provided they were able to satisfy officials at State and DHS that they met six criteria meant to show they were not in fact terrorists and posed no danger to U.S. security. Needless to say, the process of qualifying for the exemption is frequently long, cumbersome and -- let's be frank -- humiliating for people who threw their lot in completely with America, and often risked life and limb to help it succeed. And even with the exemption possibility, the slanderous classification of the KDP and PUK as terrorist organizations remains, an undeserving and gratuitous insult to a proud people that have gone out of their way to align themselves openly with Washington -- an all-too-rare occurrence in a Middle East where anti-Americanism is, sad to say, always in fashion.
Small consolation for the Kurds, perhaps, that the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela were also once ensnared by the INA's overly-broad sweep. Thankfully, Congress acted in 2008 to pass a law that explicitly removed the ANC from treatment as a terrorist organization under the INA. Similar legislative relief has been provided to other groups who fought repressive regimes. Now, no less should be done for the Kurds. As has so often been the case when it comes to doing the right thing in matters of national security, Senator Joseph Lieberman is leading the way, crafting a possible fix to the Kurds' outrageous dilemma. The Obama administration is signaling that it will support Lieberman's effort and it should do so, wholeheartedly. A statement to that effect by President Obama when he meets Barzani would go a long way. Even better if the president in the meantime issued a directive to State and DHS instructing them to cease considering the KDP and PUK as terrorist organizations for purposes of issuing visas.
Allow Visas to be Issued From Erbil. A related problem is that the U.S. Consulate in Kurdistan is not yet issuing visas. Instead, Kurds wishing to visit the United States must either take their chances by going to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad (by all accounts, a nightmarish experience due to security precautions), or travel abroad to an American post in the Gulf or Turkey. On top of the hurdles already posed by the INA's restrictions, the additional time, expense, and hassle this process adds can quickly become prohibitive. The Obama administration should act soon to correct the situation, and fast-track a presidential decision to issue visas from Erbil.
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There hasn't been a lot of good news on the Iraq front of late. But there is one bit, and I am going to grab it and hope for the best: President Obama has nominated Brett McGurk to be the next Ambassador to Iraq. I worked closely with Brett on Iraq policy back in the day and it is hard to think of someone Obama might have nominated who is more committed to success in Iraq. Brett was one of the earliest and most ardent supporters of the surge in 2006 and he has stayed active on the inside more or less ever since. There are few Americans inside or outside government with his breadth of experience and insider knowledge about Iraqi politics.
Senator McCain has expressed some very understandable frustration with Obama's handling of the Iraq file, but I hope those concerns do not hold up McGurk's confirmation. McCain is right that the prospects for securing American interests in the region would be better if the Obama administration had successfully negotiated a deal to keep the planned-for stay-behind overwatch force in place. And even if U.S. plans in Iraq have had to be scaled back, the embassy will still be extraordinarily large and something of a managerial nightmare; McGurk will need a very strong senior leadership team to manage it all effectively.
But those who still want to preserve as much of what the surge accomplished as can be preserved at this point will not find a more committed partner and advocate than Brett McGurk. I hope his nomination means we can count the president in that number.
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Yesterday, Josh Rogin highlighted testimony given by Peter Lavoy, acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Security Affairs before the House Armed Services Committee about U.S. plans to not move forward with the 240,000 tons of North Korean food aid it had promised during recent meetings in Beijing. This decision was made as a result of North Korea's plans to launch a satellite into space, violating the moratorium they recently agreed to.
I have said previously that linking a U.S. humanitarian assistance program to the resumption of six party talks is a bad precedent. This type of action will lead many to believe that this would be a U.S. attempt to bribe the North Koreans to the table by taking advantage of a dire humanitarian situation.
Reports by U.S. non-governmental organizations working in North Korea are again saying that North Korean people are suffering from a severe shortfall in food supplies. This is not a new scenario for North Korea. The regime has continually struggled to feed its people since the famine of the mid 1990s, when over one million people lost their lives.
What is more shocking is the effect the many years of living on less than 1,700 calories a day have had on the general population. I saw this first-hand in a Pyongyang park in 2008 where some elderly people were quietly harvesting grass so they could supplement a meal. Today, a North Korean child can expect to be up to 7 inches shorter than his/her South Korean counterpart and 20 pounds lighter by adulthood.
Those in the NGO community with access to remote areas of the country have confirmed many in North Korea suffer from malnutrition and infection. In many cases, people outside of the capital are on the brink of fatal starvation.
Recently, five U.S. non-governmental aid agencies urged the U.S. government not to delay the provision of food aid, stating that "delay or potential cancellation of this program would violate humanitarian principles which hold that lifesaving assistance should not be used to achieve political aims." I couldn't agree more.
These five organizations have been working in North Korea for years, have first hand knowledge of the situation in-country, and have proved their ability to work alongside the World Food Programme to assure food assistance reached those most in need.
Where is Special Envoy Robert King in this scenario?
Why has the administration allowed the Department of Defense to announce food assistance has been halted?
It was Special Envoy King and a senior representative from USAID who were responsible for negotiating the resumption of food assistance during the March meetings.
It begs the question -- who is in charge of U.S. humanitarian policy in North Korea and what is the Obama administration's overall strategy?
Until a coherent strategy is articulated, questions will continue to be asked about the philosophical and practical origins of this administration's approach to humanitarian assistance and the need for North Korea to halt its nuclear agenda. These are, and should remain, separate issues.
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Looking at the various "Arab Spring" movements, I am struck by how events in each country have influenced other countries and shaped the broader revolution. The very fact that it is known as the "Arab Spring," (or "Arab Uprising," or any number of other variations) emphasizes its transnational character. This might even be expanded further beyond the "Arab" dimension, if we consider the 2009 Green Movement in Iran as one of the catalysts, or the recent protests against recrudescent Putinism in Russia as one of the fruits. Yet for all the transnational characteristics of this movement as a mass uprising against autocracy and repression, it is also a series of unique national movements with particular characteristics and diverse outcomes. These differences are evident in Tunisia's cautious progress, Egypt's imperiled transition, Libya's post-conflict fragility, and the crucible that is Syria, just to cite a few.
In each of these countries the uprisings have been comprised of motley crews and mixed motives, ranging from peaceful and democratic reformers who seek genuine freedom for themselves and their fellow citizens, to militants and Islamists whose purposes are more suspect. Even as the democratic reformers work to advance a positive vision grounded in human dignity and liberty, their efforts risk being eclipsed by non-democratic elements, and their stories risk being forgotten.
Here an important new resource has just been launched that will highlight the work and lives of these reformers, not only in the Middle East but from every continent: the Freedom Collection of the George W. Bush Institute. Shadow Government readers are encouraged to check out the Freedom Collection website.
The Freedom Collection preserves the stories of activists in repressive countries who have devoted their lives to the cause of liberty. Using a combination of video and oral interviews and a unique documentary archive, it features profiles of dissidents and reformers from every continent, of diverse faiths and backgrounds, and a common commitment to advancing human rights and democracy. Their backgrounds are remarkably diverse, and include well-known figures such as Vaclav Havel, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and the Dalai Lama, to others whose stories deserve to be highlighted, such as Chinese house church leader Bob Fu, Venezuelan democracy activist Cristal Montanez Baylor, and Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid. These leaders represent the very incarnation of courage, and yet "courageous" seems almost trite and insufficient to describe the suffering that many of them have endured, and why they have endured it.
The Freedom Collection communicates to reformers and dissidents around the world that they are not alone, that while the path they walk may seem isolated and perilous, their efforts are remembered. And not just remembered, but can serve as both inspiration and practical tool for other would-be reformers in other repressive countries.
It will also be a resource for scholars, who seek to understand better what drives such movements, and in particular what motivates the people who led such movements. In a way the Freedom Collection will also offer a contribution to the perennial debate over what drives change, human agency or structural forces. While both play a role, the Freedom Collection highlights the personal dimension of human agency -- the unique attributes of intrepid individuals who resist cultural and governance barriers in their efforts to promote better lives for themselves and their nations. Finally, I hope the Freedom Collection can put a human face on what are sometimes needlessly partisan debates over the question of democracy promotion in foreign policy. While the policy questions are manifestly complex, that complexity should not obscure the individual lives that are at the center of these questions, and whose voices should also be heard at the policy table.
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President Obama used his visit to Seoul this week for the Nuclear Security Summit to warn North Korea not to go through with its provocative plan to launch a long-range ballistic missile in April. The launch would only "further isolate" Pyongyang, he declared, and would bring neither "the security" nor "the respect" the regime seeks.
All the right words, and yet once again the United States is playing tactical catch-up in response to a strategic move by the North. It appears that the administration was genuinely surprised by the North's announcement on March 16 that it would go ahead with the missile launch. The launch would clearly violate existing U.N. Security Council resolutions and the recent U.S.-DPRK agreement of February 29 in which the United States was to provide food aid (well, "nutritional assistance") in exchange for the North halting provocative missile and nuclear tests and allowing IAEA inspectors into some of its Yongbyon facilities. The administration furled its collective brow and avoided celebrating the February 29 agreement as a breakthrough, but appeared convinced that they had kicked the North Korea can down the road past the nuclear summit and the presidential elections here and in South Korea. The North, no doubt sniffing a certain tactical desperation, has raised the ante.
It is surprising that the administration seems so surprised. As I pointed out in previous postings and in op-eds in the Washington Post and elsewhere last December when Kim Jong Il died, the North has been propagandizing for years about its intentions to become a "full nuclear weapons state" in 2012...predictably around the April 15 hundredth anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth. Speculation that the North's most recent escalation represents a power struggle between hardliners and internationalists in Pyongyang is silly. The North has been consistent and transparent about its intent to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them -- through missiles and/or transfer to third countries (the latter threat was made repeatedly to U.S. negotiators in 2003 and the capability demonstrated with the El Kibar reactor in Syria). Everything else the North does is a secondary tactical move within that longer-term objective, which they see as indispensable to regime survival.
The temptation in the White House will be to continue threatening to throw Pyongyang in the rhetorical briar patch of "international isolation" so that United States and our allies can focus our limited hard power on the more immediate problem of preventing Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. However, Tehran will take note of the U.S. response to North Korea. We should assume that the Mullahs have seen the video tape of Bill Clinton declaring in 1994 that he would not allow North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.
The U.N. sanctions now in place from the North's previous missile and nuclear tests are not being fully enforced -- particularly by Beijing -- and there is pressure short of war that the administration can bring to bear on Pyongyang if necessary. If there are no consequences for the ballistic missile launch, the regime will come to expect minimal consequences for another nuclear test...or another transfer of nuclear related technology. And Tehran will definitely take note.
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Michele Flournoy’s extravagant campaign spin on the president’s foreign policy is politics, not policy, which inclines me against replying. But the outsize claims the campaign is attempting to peddle that America is “more secure, safer and more respected” deserve to be tested. The president's record is not nearly as good as this campaign puffery suggests, nor is it as thoroughly bad as his most boisterous critics claim, in part because the Pentagon has been effective in shaping policy on the war in Afghanistan and other key areas. Some of the credit for that is due to Michele herself, who handled her portfolio is a creditable way. But Michele Flournoy the policymaker is much more credible than Flournoy the campaign spinner.
First and foremost, it merits remembering that the counter-terrorism policies that made America safer are almost in their entirety policies that Barack Obama opposed in the Senate and campaigned against when running for president: long-term detention of terrorists, trial by military tribunal, support for the Patriot Act, Executive Authority to kill American citizens engaged in terrorism. Where he sought to change those policies, such as closing Guantanamo or prosecuting intelligence agents for torture, he was prevented by the Congress from doing so.
Second, the administration’s claim of the president’s unique courage in approving the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed is deeply unfair to President Bush. Can they really believe their predecessor, who bears the scars of having been in command during the attacks of September 11th, would not have made the same decision? It is uncharitable in the extreme, especially for a politician who claimed he would return civility to our public life.
Third, the campaign narrative on Iraq is dishonest. The president did not conduct a responsible withdrawal from Iraq; he conducted a retreat in place. By setting an arbitrary end to combat operations in August of 2010, he conveyed to Iraqis we were no longer committed to the objectives for which we were fighting the war -- as his withdrawal timelines have also done in Afghanistan. Far from “crafting a responsible plan to leave Iraq in the hands of its people,” he crafted a scenario in which Prime Minister Maliki had both the means and motive for seizing power and the non-sectarian future Iraqis had voted for fractured. The president also crafted an expensive and wholly implausible civilian mission that is already crumbling.
Fourth, the president reluctantly joined, he did not lead, the international coalition in Libya. Germany defends it’s refusal to participate in the mission on the grounds that their position was shared by the Obama administration two days before the vote. Instead of setting our allies up to be successful where they would take military action in our interest, the Obama administration only grudgingly supplied them enough help so they would not fail. That President Obama is taking such credit for Libya is resented, not respected.
Michele Flournoy makes it sound as though “fiery Republicans” are the only people who could object to her self-serving narrative of the president’s achievements. But her claims are actually testable propositions. Let’s take one of the president’s favorite metrics: American popularity in the so-called Muslim world. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, President Obama’s policies have caused our country to be more disliked in Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia; and considered unreliable by Israel, and Europe. Only 8 percent of Pakistanis have confidence in President Obama to do the right thing, not surprising given the wild swings of policy toward Pakistan.
There are many more ways President Obama’s national security policies have either failed (trade policy) or are the continuation of previous administrations (the pivot to Asia, after all, mostly consists of accepting Bush administration trade agreements and multilateralism policies in Asia). And that's not even counting the colossal increase in our national debt that the president has piled up. But the most damaging effect of the president’s tenure is the divisiveness he has sowed in our body politic.
It didn’t have to be this way. A better president could have built bipartisan support for his policies. A better president could have worked with Congress to solve our country’s pressing problems. A better president could have graciously acknowledged where he built on the policies of its predecessors, reminding Americans of our broad agreement on most national security issues. Our country deserves such a president.
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Here we go again.
President Obama has reportedly asked for military options in Syria, including "humanitarian airlifts, naval monitoring of Syria and the establishment of a no-fly zone, among other possibilities," according to the New York Times.
If the Syrian people are morally justified in fighting against their own government, then it is permissible (though not necessarily prudent) for the United States and other international actors to come to their aid. That is why the United States is and should be at least rhetorically and diplomatically on the side of the protesters and rebels. Further assistance might take the form of humanitarian assistance and money, with training and weapons a next step. But should it include a U.S. military deployment?
It's a hard case to make. Just because the Syrians have a just cause doesn't make it our fight. It becomes our fight if intervening in Syria a) would further U.S. national security interests, b) at an acceptable cost, c) with a reasonable chance of creating a situation in Syria better than the present one.
We certainly have a greater national security stake in Syria than we did in Libya, but is it enough to justify an intervention? Here's the best case I can make: we are fighting a 30-year Cold War against Iran, and anything we can do to contain and limit Iran's influence is good. Toppling the regime in Syria eliminates Iran's main regional ally and a major transit route for weapons and Hezbollah. Therefore, we should take advantage of the unique opportunity that the Syrian uprising affords us and make regime change in Damascus official U.S. policy. Fellow Shadow Government contributor John Hannah made a similar argument last year.
For the sake of argument, let's assume that's a sufficiently vital interest; I'll revisit it in a little bit. We still have to ask if an intervention is achievable and cost-effective. Here the argument for intervention becomes even harder. There is no international coalition supporting an intervention in Syria, making it harder to assure the Syrians of the benevolence of any intervention. The split in Syria is alarmingly along sectarian lines, suggesting there would be little chance of forming a national unity government after the fall of Assad and risking a replay of the 2006-7 Iraqi civil war. The nature of the fighting in Syria makes an outside intervention harder: rebels control no territory, a no-fly zone would be simply irrelevant, a no-drive zone would be tantamount to invasion.
Furthermore, Obama showed in Libya that he is willing to topple a regime and then walk away, leaving the hard work of peacebuilding to others and casting serious doubt on the future of post-Qaddafi Libya. That precedent bodes ill for a post-Assad Syria. Additionally, the domestic political pressure to reduce U.S. spending makes it hard for Obama, or any American policymaker, to push for the kind of large-scale reconstruction and stabilization assistance that a post-war Syrian would need. In short, there is a sadly low probability that we could overthrow Assad, replace him with something better, and avoid chaos.
More broadly, I doubt that we have the kind of political will necessary to make an intervention of this sort effective. I admit this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy (the more we write about how little political will we have, the less political will we have). I especially hate it when this kind of argument is leveled against the intervention in Afghanistan, a place where we have demonstrated astonishing political will for more than a decade. And I dislike the argument because it implies a defeatist, pessimistic take on American capabilities. I tend to agree with Robert Kagan that the stories of our decline and fall are greatly exaggerated.
Nonetheless, some realistic pessimism is appropriate in this particular case. Does anyone think the Obama administration, or the American foreign policy establishment generally, has what it takes to do a Syrian intervention right? I want to believe that we can do this because it is almost a textbook-perfect case of where our interests and our ideals have aligned with rare harmony. But if I, the last champion of nation-building, am skeptical, is anyone else going to believe it is possible?
Now let's return to our interests at stake in Syria. Our involvement in Syria would essentially be a proxy fight in our broader campaign against Iran. But there is a danger in choosing to make Syria a battlefield. We might sink time, money, troops, and energy into regime change in Syrian; meanwhile, Iran successfully completes and weaponizes the nuclear cycle. Syria would be a pyrrhic victory. We run the risk of confusing a sideshow with the main event. The main event is Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Will intervening in Syria prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? Who is an intervention most likely to slow down: Iran, or the United States?
Given the difficulty of doing a Syrian intervention right and the fact that it is not the primary U.S. interest in the region, I am not currently persuaded that an intervention would be good U.S. policy. (I know it is heretical to say that anything that happens in the Middle East is not absolutely vital to American interests. But I am increasingly convinced that this particular emperor is naked.) That may change if, for example, the Syrian uprising demonstrates much greater capacity and unity, if the international community begins to coalesce around an anti-Assad position, or if Assad himself starts to look for a way out, the achievement of which should be the focus our diplomatic strategy. Until then, masterly inactivity might be our best military strategy.
Meanwhile, take a moment to reflect: Syria is precisely the sort of mission we should be able to do, but Obama's decision that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations" effectively takes it off the table. The fact that we lack the capacity and the will to act when it would be both in our own self-interest and in defense of humanitarian ideals is one of the most damning things that can be said about Obama's defense strategy. That he is now asking for military options for Syria suggests he knows it.
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The P5+1 -- which includes the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, China, and Russia -- has just accepted an Iranian offer of further nuclear talks. These talks will come at a crucial time. The West has dramatically ratcheted up pressure on the Iranian regime through new sanctions targeting Iran's oil exports and its central bank, and President Obama in remarks on Sunday took a tougher line than he has in the past by ruling out the notion of "containing" a nuclear-armed Iran. The next round of negotiations will therefore be an important test of the notion that pressure can force Iran to reconsider its nuclear ambitions, as well as a test of U.S. resolve in the face of Iranian obstinacy.
Sanctions on Iran have undoubtedly had an impact, driving down the value of Iran's currency, driving up inflation, and making it difficult for Iranians to sell oil or even buy food. But making life difficult for Iranians is not the objective of U.S. policy; indeed, for many years it was American policy to avoid causing widespread hardship in Iran. The U.S. goal is to halt Iran's nuclear activities, and that has not yet been accomplished -- Iran is spinning more centrifuges, and manufacturing more and higher-grade uranium than ever before.
If the upcoming round of talks, like previous iterations, fails to yield progress, the U.S. will be left with little recourse other than additional pressure, while Israel will have additional incentive to carry out a strike. But another alternative exists, which President Obama has yet to rule out -- that the U.S. will draw back our own redlines and accept a nuclear weapons-capable, if not nuclear -- armed, Iran. This would be a dangerous miscalculation.
While the official U.S. and U.N. Security Council stance has long been that Iran must halt uranium enrichment as part of any serious talks, Washington has demonstrated tactical flexibility in an effort to allow Iran to "save face" and get negotiations started. From 2006-2008, the U.S. and its allies offered Tehran the so-called "freeze for freeze" deal, whereby Iran would merely temporarily freeze new enrichment and the West new sanctions, as a brief prelude to the full suspension of both uranium enrichment and sanctions implementation called for by the U.N. Security Council.
Similarly, in October 2009, the U.S. and its partners offered to swap Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) for the fuel plates Iran required to power its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), with which it manufactured medical isotopes. Washington asserted that the arrangement was intended as a confidence-building measure, but did not negate the U.N. demand that Iran suspend enrichment.
Recently, however, there have been signs of a U.S. shift. In his speech on Sunday, the President assiduously referred only to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, not a nuclear weapons capability. Likewise, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has asserted that the U.S. redline is that Iran not develop a nuclear weapon. This leaves open the possibility of Washington acquiescing to a "latent" nuclear weapons capability, whereby Iran retains weapons-applicable components of its nuclear program, such its enrichment work, as long as it refrains from actually building a bomb.
Many analysts have urged President Obama to consider one of the various proposals that would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium, though perhaps under somewhat stronger supervision. One of these is the so-called Russian proposal, under which Iran would address the IAEA's questions in phases and the West would reciprocally ease sanctions. Another was the vague offer by Iranian President Ahmadinejad during his September visit to New York to cease Iran's production of highly-enriched uranium.
The allure of such a deal from the U.S. perspective is clear. Washington would cite the deal as a diplomatic triumph that averted war and limited Iran's nuclear capacity. Likewise, the Iranian regime, having compelled the West to recognize its nuclear status and retained its enrichment program, would tout the pact as a victory.
In reality, allowing Iran to retain its uranium enrichment program would carry serious risks for the U.S. and our allies. The Institute for Science and International Security warns that "without [a halt to enrichment], Iran's enrichment program would continue to grow in capacity and increase Iran's ability to quickly, and perhaps secretly, make highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons in its centrifuge plants."
In other words, the Iranian regime would have its cake and eat it, too. The current sanctions drive would fizzle and existing sanctions would be eased or lifted. A military strike would effectively be taken off the table, including by Israel, which would likely feel constrained from attacking nuclear facilities blessed by the U.S. The Iranian regime, having succeeded in defying not only the U.S. but the entire Security Council, would be strengthened domestically. But the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons would not be removed; instead, Iran could perfect its nuclear expertise, stopping just one turn of the screw away from producing a nuclear weapon, or even building one clandestinely.
As our confrontation with Iran enters a new, more dangerous phase, the U.S. must avoid the temptation of redefining our redlines and objectives in a manner that fails to satisfy our national security requirements. To avert war and diffuse tensions through clever tactics and smart policies is admirable; to do so by abdicating our vital interests is not.
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In my last post, I argued that evaluating progress in our war with al Qaeda is possible, but that we must first answer a series of questions, beginning with "What is al Qaeda?" In this post, I'll look at the second issue -- the problem of al Qaeda's objectives in their war. Only by understanding what the group aspires to achieve can we determine if they have succeeded in attaining their goals or not. As with the issue of defining al Qaeda, there are a variety of opinions within the expert community and the government about the group's strategic vision, a term that includes both objectives and plans for achieving them. Consistently, however, the U.S. government -- including both the Bush and Obama administrations -- has concluded that carrying out terrorist attacks on the U.S. and our allies is the key objective for "core" al Qaeda, while the affiliates are focused on local agendas (although they now also desire to carry out attacks on the U.S.).
There are, however, hints in official U.S. statements of quite a different set of objectives for the group. The declassified part of an April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), for instance, asserts that al Qaeda's political goal is an "ultra-conservative interpretation of sharia-based governance spanning the Muslim world." In 2010, an official statement for the record of then-DNI Dennis Blair, listed the objectives for al Qaeda, besides attacking the U.S. and its allies, as "driving Western influence from Islamic lands" and "facilitating the establishment of sharia law in South Asia." A speech by John Brennan in 2011 gives a detailed look at how the U.S. defines al Qaeda's goals, proposing four separate objectives: first, to terrorize the U.S. into retreating from the world stage; second, to use long wars to financially bleed the U.S. while inflaming anti-American sentiment; third, to defend the rights of Muslims; and finally, claims al Qaeda has "a feckless delusion" and "grandiose vision" for global domination through a "violent Islamic caliphate."
A look at the public and private statements of al Qaeda's leaders supports the view that the group seeks to achieve far more than simply attacking the U.S. and its allies. In multiple statements, leaders like Zawahiri have consistently presented a series of objectives that al Qaeda is actively pursuing: liberating all "Muslim lands" from occupation by both non-Muslims and "apostate" rulers; imposing their version of sharia (Islamic law) on Muslims and non-Muslims alike in these lands; erecting then a state that they call the "caliphate;" and eventually making God's word the highest. This phrase, which means many things to Muslims, signifies just one thing for the extremists: that the entire world is ruled by their version of sharia.
It is significant that al Qaeda's lists of objectives do not mention attacking the United States or its allies. Rather, attacking the U.S. is presented as a way to achieve these goals, suggesting that U.S. evaluations of al Qaeda's effectiveness have a serious error at their very foundation: a confusion of our enemy's means and ends. The importance of this mistake cannot be understated. If al Qaeda's main goal is to attack the U.S. and our current counter-terrorism (CT) efforts have prevented the group from doing so, then we have succeeded not only in saving lives, but also have found how to stop the terrorists entirely. If, on the other hand, killing Americans was just one of the methods that al Qaeda has been employing on its way to other, larger goals, then our CT work might have only partially thwarted the group and there might be other areas where they have been more successful in reaching their goals.
In my next post, I'll take a look at the objectives that al Qaeda has said that it is pursuing, and attempt to bring some clarity to the question of how well the group has been doing in achieving them.
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Is al Qaeda dead? Statements by counter-terrorism and intelligence officials suggest that the Obama administration is moving toward this conclusion. In a speech at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies last June, John Brennan said that al Qaeda was "in its decline" and that it was possible to envision the demise of al Qaeda's core leadership in the near future. Leon Panetta was even more forthright in remarks to reporters a month later, arguing that the U.S. was within reach of "strategically defeating al Qaeda," that the group was "on the run," and that killing 10-20 key leaders would lead to its defeat. Two weeks ago DNI James Clapper reiterated the administration's view in his testimony before Congress that core al Qaeda was "diminishing in operational importance," that the movement could soon fragment, and that this would make the core largely of symbolic significance.
It is rather surprising, given this optimistic appraisal, that the second half of Clapper's testimony on terrorism -- as well as the next few lines of Brennan's speech -- detail the resilience and growing threat from al Qaeda affiliates -- the official designation for groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrab (AQIM). Both statements warn that these groups are not just maintaining their activities, but are actually expanding in size and influence while now seeking to attack the U.S. How can the strategic defeat of al Qaeda be at hand if its affiliates are surging?
The apparent contradiction within these two statements suggests that there might be inconsistencies in how the U.S. assesses progress in the war against al Qaeda. Over the next few days I'll attempt to tease out these inconsistencies and provide some clarity on the four interrelated questions that the U.S. must answer if we want to understand where we are at in the war with al Qaeda: How do we define al Qaeda; what does al Qaeda want to achieve (i.e. what are its objectives); how well do we think al Qaeda is doing at achieving these objectives; and finally how well do we think we're doing at stopping al Qaeda.
Let's start with the most fundamental of these questions: What is al Qaeda? It might seem strange that more than ten years after 9-11 we are still struggling to answer this question, but understanding this enemy has never been an easy task. In their official remarks, both Brennan and Clapper provide the administration's answer: Al Qaeda is cleanly divided into a core that has as its key objective attacking the U.S., affiliates that have shown interest in attacking us but generally focus on local concerns, and "adherents" -- individuals who have been inspired by al Qaeda's ideology, but have no organizational connection to the core. Given this description, if asked to choose between describing al Qaeda as a movement that inspires and motivates or an organization that directs, commands, and controls a global war, I believe that the administration would answer "movement."
This seems like a plausible answer, and it has been used to guide successful U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, but it leaves out a necessary piece of the puzzle: it ignores how al Qaeda defines itself. In multiple statements, al Qaeda's leaders have consistently asserted that their group as an organization with a fully articulated bureaucracy and administrative committees, the vanguard or "High Command," of a global jihad against the Crusaders and Jews (and their allies). Another, more detailed, explication of their views is presented in a 2009 interview with Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the now dead "General Manager" for al Qaeda. Abu al-Yazid was asked how large al Qaeda was, and he used the opportunity to describe three tiers within the organization: the leadership and those who have sworn an oath of loyalty to the leaders (what we call the core); multiple groups and individuals that joined directly with the command to fight in Pakistan and Afghanistan; and what he calls "branches," that al Qaeda has opened in "many Muslim countries."
Abu al-Yazid also claimed that the leadership had direct command and control over all these parts of its organization, despite the difficulties posed by distance and wartime conditions, ordering, for example, the branches to carry out attacks against the U.S. This was not just boasting. At the time of the interview, it was the official position of the U.S. government that AQAP, AQIM, and other affiliates were focused on local concerns and would never attempt to attack the homeland. Six months after Abu al-Yazid made this assertion, an AQAP member tried to set off a bomb in his underwear on a U.S. flight into Detroit, and since then a series of plots have been disrupted involving various affiliates.
It's now possible to understand, at least partially, the apparent contradiction between the two parts of Brennan and Clapper's statements: the U.S. has attempted to disaggregate the "high command" from the troops that they claim to be commanding. Our current CT (counter-terrorism) strategy targets the high command (the Core), and thus the claim that "al Qaeda" is almost defeated, while leaving the forces in the field (the "affiliates") relatively untouched. A rough analogy to current U.S. strategy -- although without the nation-state structures to provide a sturdy backbone -- would be if in a future war, an enemy targeted the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon, and the Combatant Commanders in an attempt to decapitate U.S. forces in the field, but was unable to take on U.S. troops directly.
Of course it is one thing for al Qaeda to claim command and control over all these forces, and quite another thing to actually exert it. Measuring this will require a further investigation of al Qaeda's objectives and the group's ability to achieve these objectives.
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Yesterday the United States and North Korea issued separate and conflicting statements regarding a way forward in the Six Party Talks. While this should come as no surprise, the most notable policy change is the administration's willingness to move forward with 240,000 metric tons of food assistance to North Korea.
Linking humanitarian assistance to progress or even the resumption of six party talks is a bad precedent and until recently the Obama administration and the State Department have never stated this new position publicly. Many would say that this would be an attempt to bribe the North Koreans to the table taking advantage of a dire humanitarian situation.
During the Bush administration the U.S. and other six party member states agreed to provide assistance in the form of Heavy Fuel Oil as a condition for North Korea to halt its nuclear activities and missile tests. While this created some controversy, there was no link to the humanitarian needs of North Korea.
Until now, the United States has always assessed the delivery of humanitarian assistance on the basis of need, not politics. This is not to say that we blindly give assistance to rogue governments. The U.S. Agency for International Development is well versed in navigating this sensitive subject. Experienced teams will put conditions on humanitarian aid, taking extraordinary steps to assure what commodities are needed most and what areas of a country have been most affected. USAID will then elaborate on how it can best respond to humanitarian emergencies.
The Obama administration has been assessing the food situation in North Korea and deliberating on what to do for almost a year. This delay and the statements released by both governments will fuel speculation that the Obama administration decided to wait until now and use humanitarian assistance as leverage on Kim Jong-un's new regime to get them back to the negotiations table.
There were signs earlier this week when, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, linked humanitarian food assistance to the stalled six party talks aimed at North Korea's de-nuclearization.
Admiral Willard said, "In terms of these negotiations that have been ongoing, I have been supportive of them, with regard to the United States' proposals for conditional food aid into North Korea and the preconditions that have come with it, which now include discussions of cessation of nuclearization and ballistic missile testing."
I experienced the reality of negotiating with the North Koreans firsthand in late 2007 and early 2008 on three trips to Pyongyang as the lead American negotiator with the North Korean government over the terms for resuming food aid where each of these meetings was chaired by First Vice Minister, Kim Kye-gwan. These discussions were done entirely separate from the six party negotiations.
The United States reached an agreement with North Korea to provide up to 500,000 metric tons of food under a significantly improved framework ensuring food would reach the North Korean people who needed it most.
This agreement remedied past problems of the regime diverting humanitarian food shipments to the military or for black market revenues. The North Koreans agreed to improved access at all stages of the food distribution apparatus, to allow random assessments, and, for the first time, permit American and U.N. World Food Program workers fluent in Korean to work in-country to oversee the distribution process, assess needs in different locations, and review distribution lists.
This program came to an abrupt halt in March 2009 with the expulsion of U.S. NGOs who were in-country monitoring the distribution shortly before the regime conducted another round of nuclear tests and long-range missiles.
The subject of food assistance should have been brought up separately during the meeting between the United States and North Korea. First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan is well versed in both sides of these negotiations as noted by North Korea's claim that the U.S. has "promised" to offer 240,000 metric tons of food assistance with the prospect of increasing the amount.
What will the Obama administration do when North Korea breaks its promises yet again and humanitarian assistance is now linked directly to the six party talks? One wonders if there was ever a clear strategy within the administration in its attempt to bring the North Koreans back to the negotiating table.
Gerald Bourke/WFP via Getty Images
The announcement that North Korea has agreed to halt nuclear and missile tests and to freeze uranium enrichment at Yongbyon is welcome news, but it is far from a solution to the entire nuclear problem. Even if the agreement holds, and so many have failed, it apparently ignores a likely covert North Korean uranium enrichment program.
Pyongyang expelled U.S. observers working at the Yongbyon nuclear site in March 2009, and two months later the North's second nuclear test shook the Korean Peninsula. By November 2010, i.e. within about 20 months, North Korea built and revealed to former Los Alamos National Laboratory director Sigfried Hecker a modern uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon, with perhaps as many as 2,000 centrifuges. This effectively ended years of debate within U.S. policy circles as to whether or not North Korea had been cheating on an earlier commitment not to enrich uranium.
It is virtually inconceivable that North Korea could have constructed such a facility so quickly without transferring equipment or drawing upon experience from another uranium enrichment plant built elsewhere. But such a facility has never been disclosed, and the latest agreement apparently does nothing to reveal or halt it. Thus, while perhaps a constructive step, absent further disclosures and actions, there is no reason to believe that the latest agreement has halted North Korea's nuclear weapons production program.
The Obama administration says it won't pay North Korea for the same horse twice. That is sound policy. This nag isn't worth paying much for even once.
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In a recent remark that has stoked considerable controversy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said that it is. Dempsey underscored the importance of this assertion when he said that it was based on this conclusion -- that the regime is a "rational actor" -- that he felt the current U.S. approach to Iran "is the most prudent path."
To determine whether Gen. Dempsey is right or wrong, it is important to understand what it means for a government to act rationally. It does not necessarily imply that the government sees the world the way we do, or makes the decisions we would make. Simply put, there are two essential criteria for rationality -- first, that decisions are arrived at through a process of logical reasoning; second, that the decisions made are the best ones given the choices available.
Most discussions of whether the Iranian regime is rational focus on the first criterion. Does the regime make its choices by weighing costs and benefits, or through a capricious process guided by whim and claims of divine revelation? The U.S. intelligence community believes that it is the former: for all of the regime's unhinged rhetoric, the regime is calculating in its decisionmaking. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program puts it this way: "Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs."
However, this conclusion raises a critical question -- what does the Iranian regime see as costly, and what does it see as beneficial?
This leads to the second criterion for rationality: a rational actor makes the best decision given the choices available. But "best" according to whose interests, and whose values? Whether an action is costly or beneficial, and thus whether a decision is best, depends vitally on the answers to these questions. Our own domestic political experience -- witness the Democrat-Republican divide over the national debt -- demonstrates that two rational actors, faced with the same sets of facts and circumstances but holding different interests, philosophies, or values, can reach very different conclusions about what to do.
So for a conclusion that the Iranian regime is rational to be useful in predicting its behavior -- not to mention making and judging our own policy -- we must assess how the regime perceives its interests. Otherwise the "costs" we impose may not be viewed as costly by the regime, and the "benefits" we offer may not be seen as beneficial.
All indications are that the regime values its own survival above all. This likely fuels its drive to obtain a nuclear weapon, which it may see as a guarantee against external foes. To the extent the regime defines its interests parochially rather than as national interests, it may also discount the economic suffering of the Iranian people except to the extent it leads to political turmoil. Thus, to be perceived as truly "costly" by the regime, any sanctions or other measures imposed or threatened by the U.S. and our allies must place at risk the regime's interests, including its prospects for survival. What's more, they must threaten those interests so much that the regime is willing to sacrifice something it apparently values greatly -- a nuclear weapon.
Likewise, any benefit offered by the U.S. and our allies, if it is to affect the regime's calculus, must be seen by the regime as advancing its interests. Many things the U.S. sees as "carrots" -- for example, free trade or normal diplomatic relations -- may in fact be seen as threatening to an authoritarian regime which is leery of the West. Conversely, what the regime would see as beneficial -- for example, assurances that the U.S. would cease its support for human rights or democracy in Iran -- we are unlikely to be willing to offer.
There are two other important points to consider about how the regime decides which option facing it is best. First, we must be aware that there are other costs and benefits at play than simply the ones we generate through sanctions or diplomatic appeals. Individuals in the regime face their own incentives -- for example personal wealth generated in the black markets that sanctions give rise to -- as well as disincentives -- for example the possibility of ending up imprisoned or worse for too vocally bucking the regime's line.
Second, we must also be aware that the regime likely lacks complete information or anything close to it. This is where the assumption that Iran acts rationally runs into the most trouble. Decisions in Iran are made by one man -- Ali Khamenei. By all accounts, he has not traveled outside Iran since becoming Supreme Leader in 1989, is likely insulated by his aides from bad news or criticism, and depends on an increasingly narrow and homogenous power base which may not expose him to alternative opinions. One is unlikely to make a good decision if ill-informed or unaware of all the options. Nor can the regime make accurate judgments about U.S. intentions if we do not clearly communicate our policies or red lines.
There are indeed examples that suggest rational cost-benefit decisionmaking by the Iranian regime, including the one cited in the 2007 NIE -- the regime's apparent decision to suspend its nuclear "weaponization" research in 2003 following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But other Iranian actions seem untethered from cost-benefit considerations. For example, why would Iran try to blow up a restaurant in Washington in an effort to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, when such an action could spark a war that Iran would surely lose? Or, why would Iran not make a show of cooperation with the IAEA delegation that recently visited Iran, if for no other reason than to delay an Israeli military strike that seems increasingly likely?
More importantly, even if we were to conclude that the Iranian regime is a rational actor, we would not necessarily be able to predict its decisions or behavior. We have a poor understanding of how the regime sees its interests, what it perceives as costly and beneficial, what information is available to its leader, and therefore what it would consider the best decision in a given circumstance. And of course, even otherwise rational actors are prone to the occasional -- and sometimes very consequential -- irrational decision. And in an authoritarian state with an aging and increasingly isolated leader, this risk goes up exponentially.
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Last week might turn out to be a very significant week in U.S.-China relations, but perhaps not for the reasons most people would think. For foreign policy mavens, the big news last week was the visit of Chinese vice-president and heir-apparent to the Party throne, Xi Jinping. For almost everyone else in the country, the big news was the supernova-like emergence of NBA star Jeremy Lin.
Ten or twenty years from now, when we look back on this past week, which event will be seen as more important for U.S.-China relations and the future of China itself? No one can yet say, and while the safe bet from the policy-maker's vantage point might be the Xi Jinping visit and its anticipation of his decade-long rule, we shouldn't make the same mistake made by the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, and count out the Jeremy Lin story. Before I go any further, I admit that even indulging in these speculations risks tripping headlong over the "wait just a second, people" admonition wisely offered by Dan Drezner against investing Jeremy Lin with any Deeper Meaning. And as my former NSC colleague Victor Cha (a scholar of sports and Asia policy) points out, those who hope that Lin's stardom might help improve the complicated U.S.-China relationship are probably indulging in wishful thinking.
First, some context. Continuing in our occasional theme of reflecting on what history can bring to policymaking, one thing history offers is a sense of perspective, a reminder that the most consequential events are often not immediately apparent at the time they occur. As my University of Texas-Austin colleague Frank Gavin has observed, three separate developments from California in the space of a few months in 1976-77 were the creation of Apple computer, the release of the movie Star Wars, and the unprecedented medals awarded to a group of Stag's Leap Napa wines in a Paris tasting contest. Though seemingly unrelated and not fully appreciated at the time, together these events heralded a new era of American culture's global influence, historically far more consequential than the Carter administration's first few months in office. Or more recently, who could have predicted on Dec. 17, 2010 that the most globally important event that day would be the self-immolation of an obscure street vendor in a seemingly insignificant North African country?
Turning back to the two China-related events of last week, the Xi visit and the Lin stardom, Steve Walt makes some persuasive points about why Xi as an individual leader might not be a primary factor shaping the U.S.-China relationship. I suspect this could underplay Xi's importance, given the hard choices China will have to make over the next decade on issues such as rebalancing its economy, addressing its many restive borders, decreasing corruption, and clarifying its strategic intentions in the western Pacific. Much of that, however, depends on the Communist Party continuing to hold its monopoly on power, and here is where Jeremy Lin could bring an added complication.
Lin has already become a cultural phenomenon in China, benefitting in part from the legions of Chinese basketball fans first cultivated by Yao Ming. Yet if Yao Ming's roots and identity were unequivocally mainland Chinese, Lin's identity is not so straightforward. His Taiwan roots could at the least complicate the mainland's popular attitudes that see the island as a renegade province. Perhaps more significantly, his evangelical Christian faith appeals to the tens of millions of house-church Christians in China, who sometimes at great risk worship outside the control of government-approved religious bodies. And his faith might also inspire otherwise non-religious Chinese, further adding to Christianity's explosive growth in China. All of this in turn poses a delicate challenge for a Communist Party that has thus far co-opted every successive new communication technology to surveil and tightly manage the information available to its citizens: How to control the message and image of Jeremy Lin that an adoring public perceives? Especially if Lin continues to play well and popular demand for information about him grows?
How this develops will depend on many factors, including whether Lin continues to play great hoops (hopefully), whether he continues to speak openly about his faith (likely), whether he ever comments about political issues such as religious freedom in China or the status of Taiwan (possible but less likely), and especially how the tension between the Chinese government's need for control and the Chinese public's hunger for information plays out (anything is possible). To be clear to readers (especially those named "Dan Drezner"!), this is not a case of feverish "Linsanity" arguing that Lin will cause democratization in China. (Only rabid Duke fans such as my Shadow co-curator are prone to investing basketball with such cosmic significance). Rather, this is a speculation that China's response to Lin's emergence could possibly play a part in fueling a movement for political change based on a host of other pre-existing factors. Or not. Only time will tell, and history will judge.
Regardless, it seems that the White House's overemphasis on the role of the Communist Party in the U.S.-China relationship may account for the Obama administration's one major mistake in its otherwise successful management of Xi's visit. This was the White House's refusal to support Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook's visit to China. Ambassador Cook's long-planned maiden trip was blocked by the Chinese government, while the White House, concerned about the Xi visit, apparently failed to press Cook's case with Beijing. This was strategically shortsighted, especially since in the long run religious citizens in China may well do more to shape China's future than an individual party leader. Furthermore, the failure to support Ambassador Cook's visa set a bad precedent for U.S. credibility on a range of issues, and conceded undue leverage to the Chinese government. After all, Beijing needed the Xi visit more than the U.S. did, and a quiet message from Washington to Beijing stressing that denying Cook her visa "would not be helpful" to the optics of Xi's trip would have likely done the trick.
How to remedy this? Next time President Obama, Vice President Biden, or Secretary Clinton meets with one of China's leaders, they should make sure that Ambassador Cook is also at the table, and should tell the Chinese that she enjoys the president's support on this important issue. Then to keep the tone agreeable, perhaps the conversation can turn to a topic everyone would find of interest, such as Jeremy Lin's most recent game.
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The media is rightly focused on Iran and Syria lately, but something brewing in southern Africa merits our attention, specifically the Obama administration's attention. Zimbabwe slips further into the abyss as President (for life) Robert Mugabe keeps winning at the game of dictatorship. Two news items stand out: the dictator announced he's running for president again, and opposition leader-cum-Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has gone over to the dark side.
Mugabe has been in power for over thirty years and all he has to show for it are grinding poverty and a deplorable human rights record. But it gets worse. His announcement comes amidst reports that his party, ZANU-PF, is not happy that he is running again. It is not yet clear why they are unhappy, but we can speculate. Though the party elite is privileged and comfortable -- benefitting also from the seizure of white-owned lands among other forms of corruption, injustice and economic mismanagement -- it realizes that perpetual dictators are not faring very well these days and their international allies are growing weary of supporting them. Watching the solidarity among Arab authoritarians breakdown must give them pause. Besides, the young dictators-in-waiting might simply be tired of waiting on the old man to retire. Mugabe arrogantly notes "Our members of the party will certainly select someone once I say I am now retiring, but not yet." He has more to do he says, such as continuing to defend independence (who threatens it? The British whose aid programs help keep him comfortable? -- see below) and furthering "black empowerment." With his dismal economic record, that last part as a campaign slogan adds insult to injury.
But it gets even worse. That other news item is a commentary in The Daily Telegraph that asks "Is the U.K. aiding corruption in Zimbabwe?" The piece notes that the British Department for International Development (DFID) is providing tens of millions of pounds for schools and health care while the Zimbabwean government spends nothing on capital outlays for schools and little for health care. So far, no story here. But the piece goes on to note that what the Mugabe regime is spending money on by the tens of millions is international travel and luxury living for the president and his regime -- including the opposition leader whom Mugabe allowed to share power with him three years ago after disputed elections and much violence. The Daily Telegraph is asking why the British government is enabling the dictatorship and its now compromised opposition leader to spend lavishly on itself for parties and palaces while the British taxpayer picks up the bill for the needs of the desperately poor and deprived Zimbabwean citizens. Good question.
Aid programs have been fraught with such waste and enabling for years, but in this day and age to help a dictator stay in power and aid in the debauching of a once-heroic opposition leader like Tsvangirai, is unacceptable.
So now we have Mugabe undaunted and running again, aided in his quest by British aid; the corruption of the opposition leader; and quite possibly the beginning of the internal breakdown of the authoritarian regime that could sow chaos if the young decide to dethrone the old and there's no opposition with integrity to pick up the pieces.
Now is the time for the US and the EU to pay attention and speak out against this turn of events and to encourage the UK to rethink its aid policy in Zimbabwe.
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Next week Xi Jinping, China's Vice President and the heir-apparent to President Hu Jintao, will make his much anticipated debut in Washington. The playbook for Xi's visit will be the May 2002 visit that Hu himself made when he was preparing to move up from Vice President to the top leadership positions. On that trip Hu did everything he could to demonstrate his credentials as the future steward of Sino-U.S. relations without making any compromises, missteps or news. The White House understood the drill: this was about investing in the long-term relationship with the next leader of China and not shopping for "deliverables." The White House Spokesman, Ari Fleischer, was careful to tell the press that the President raised tough issues from Tibet to trade, while lowering expectations of major breakthroughs. It generally paid off in the longer-run, as Bush and Hu developed a level of trust that helped them navigate subsequent crises in North Korea, Taiwan and later the international financial system.
Presumably both Beijing and the White House would like to repeat that success. It will not be as easy ten years later, though. In 2002 the United States was focused on the threat from terrorism and not the threat from China; the business community was united behind the President's efforts to advance U.S.-China relations; there was some modest progress on human rights issues; and Hu himself was absolutely committed to Deng Xiaoping's admonition to bide time, gather strength and not challenge the United States.
This time around the environment is clearly more difficult. Chinese cyberattacks, aggressive territorial claims, anti-satellite missile tests, and non-transparent military modernization are all impossible to ignore, for the United States and for China's neighbors. The human rights situation has deteriorated, particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang and for political dissidents. The American business community is much more divided about China policy and more willing to criticize trade theft and non-tariff barriers (in particularly unfortunate timing for Xi, this week Dupont sued another Chinese scientist for industrial espionage, the second time in three years). The one issue that is quieter than 2002 is Taiwan, for which both governments are probably thankful.
And while Xi is unlikely to change the fundamental direction he is inheriting from Hu (and Hu from Jiang and Jiang from Deng), the new leader has a different style and faces considerably more domestic pressure to look forceful than his predecessor did a decade ago. Hu, for example, took extreme care to avoid any ideological collisions with the United States and the West, co-opting terms like "democracy" and "responsible stakeholder" rather than respond directly to the premise that China's value system needed to change. Xi, in contrast, gained kudos from nationalists at home for his 2009 statement on the "Three Did Nots" in Mexico City, in which he explicitly fired back at the critics of China. It is also hard to find evidence Xi is a more progressive thinker on human rights and political space. The Dalai Lama had a good relationship with Xi's father Xi Zhongxun decades ago, but Tibetan hopes for improvements under the son were dashed when the younger Xi denounced supporters of the Dalai Lama during a heavily policed visit to Lhasa last summer. Similarly, China watchers in Singapore and Southeast Asia have hoped that Xi would be more accommodating and reasonable on maritime disputes given his background as party boss in the coastal province of Fujien, yet as current Vice Chair of the Central Military Commission he has presided over Beijing's expanding military operations in contested waters around Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan.
On the other hand, Xi is a more confident and charismatic presence than Hu, knows more about the United States (next week he will revisit the Iowa town where he led an agricultural delegation in the early 1980s), and will likely announce major commercial agreements while he is here. So the jury is still out. As the U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, recently confessed, "it is going to take a while to really understand how he might move forward." Meanwhile, Xi's visit to the United States could prove a success despite the tougher environment because for both Washington and Beijing, failure is not an option.
I imagine the Obama administration may be wondering whether or not to release another edition of the National Security Strategy (NSS). They released Obama's first (and so far only) one in May 2010. Although the law mandating the NSS calls for annual updates, at the time it looked like the administration might follow the George W. Bush precedent of releasing just one per term.
The one-per-term standard makes sense for a number of reasons. First, we shouldn't expect the overall national security strategy of the country to change on an annual basis. Second, producing a quality document takes a surprising amount of work; better to invest those resources in monitoring the implementation of the old one than in finding ways to repackage old wine in new wine skins. Third, as an administration creeps closer to the silly season of campaigning, the temptation to turn the document into a brag-sheet rather than a serious articulation of the administration's worldview becomes irresistible. Whether or not you agreed with the content of the arguments, Clinton's first NSS and both of Bush's were more substantial and thus more consequential documents than the later ones produced by the Clinton administration.
However, I would not be surprised to learn that a new version is under consideration. Doubtless the campaign temptation is pulling mightily on the Obama team. President Obama will be the first Democratic incumbent in decades -- maybe since Roosevelt -- to have reason to believe that his bragging rights on national security are stronger than they are on domestic policy and the economy. When the applause lines are louder on national security than they are on the economy, it is easy to predict that the candidate will proffer the former more often than the latter (insert late night comic riff about Giuliani mentioning 9/11 here). Whether or not they can produce a document at least as serious as their first one, let alone on par with earlier ones is tougher to predict. Campaign-induced distortions will be a big challenge.
Yet there is one good reason why they should release another version in the current term -- perhaps good enough to overcome all of my other caveats. A few weeks ago, President Obama released a much-ballyhooed "new strategic guidance" and the administration went to considerable lengths to emphasize the boldness and novelty of what they were doing. The commentariat responded in kind -- a Google search of "Obama strategic pivot" produces some 1,200,000 hits.
If it really is so new and so bold, it raises the obvious question: is it new and bold enough to require changes in the (now) old NSS, from which, in theory, such defense guidance is supposed to emanate?
On the other hand, if the new strategic guidance does not require a change in the NSS, how bold and new can it be?
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Given how many times Newt Gingrich rose from the proverbial electoral grave to become campaign-relevant again, I will not join the chorus claiming the fight for the Republican nomination is over. However, I will endorse another cliché: the primary season is at an important turning point, or at least it should be. It is high time the candidates focused on providing a compelling alternative to President Obama rather than providing a litany of reasons for detesting the other Republicans in the race.
The urgency is especially acute in foreign policy and national security. I have been fretting about this for some time now and I concede that the worst of my fears have not been realized; there won't be a crack-up within the party over foreign policy. Moreover, I endorse the conventional wisdom that the election will be won or lost on domestic policy and the economy.
However, that is no reason to settle for sloppy critiques and platforms in the area of foreign policy. Republicans must come to terms with the fact that this will be the strongest Democrat incumbent on national security and foreign policy they have faced in decades. This has more than a whiff of damnation with faint praise, since both President Clinton and especially President Carter were hobbled with substantial national security baggage during their reelection campaign. But for precisely that reason, I think Republicans have sometimes settled for an intellectually lazy critique because, given how weak the opposing party's record is, that seems to have sufficed.
Not this time. Obama has serious national security weaknesses and a record that warrants critique, but it is immune to superficial sound bite attacks. Soft on protecting America? The SEALs bought Obama immunity on that one when they took down Bin Laden. Naïve about the Iranian threat? Candidate Obama was demonstrably naïve about Iran and governed that way for the first half of his term, but since then has talked tough and marshaled strong sanctions.
Even issues where he has made bigger mistakes, like the failure to secure an agreement for stay-behind forces in Iraq, he may not be as politically vulnerable because they have been popular mistakes. The Iraq case illustrates my larger point well. Obama's hands-off approach to Iraq merits criticism (and I have supplied some here, here, and here, but it is hard to present the argument in a fashion that is brief enough to engage but fair enough to withstand administration rebuttals). Thus, Obama may have been hands-off personally, but the administration was not; Vice-President Biden devoted considerable time to the Iraq file, and with Ambassador Crocker on the ground, the administration had a good team in place. Moreover, the lion's share of the blame for the failure rests with the Iraqi leadership. I think reasonable people can question the way Obama handled the Iraq file, but it requires a nuanced line to explain how the administration missed the mark. Offer a sloppy critique, and the administration and its allies in the media swat it down with "But Bush negotiated the withdrawal agreement" -- and all too often the discussion ends there.
The Obama team's rare invocation of a Bush policy in the defense suggests two fruitful lines of contrast that the Republican nominee should develop:
1. Obama's foreign policy successes have come when he has followed Bush policies; his failures have come when he has struck out on his own. I have made this point before, but it bears reemphasis. Republicans need not fear giving Obama credit for his successes because to a remarkable extent they have come where he has governed like a Republican not like candidate Obama.
2. Obama has made relatively effective use of the tools and instruments of power that he inherited from his predecessor -- it raises the question, what new tools and instruments of power is Obama bequeathing to his successor? The SOF capabilities that produced the successful hunt for Bin Laden were honed on his predecessor's watch, especially by General McChrystal in Iraq. Likewise with tactics, techniques, and procedures associated with drone strikes. The financial levers that are squeezing Iran today were perfected by the Bush team. The key elements of Obama's Asia strategy -- the ones that have the best chance of yielding positive results -- were built under Bush and expanded under Obama. (Of course, in each of these areas, the Bush team took capabilities that were at an even more embryonic stage under Clinton's watch, so there is plenty of credit to be shared on both sides of the aisle. By the way, this is precisely how things transpired during the first Cold War, as the history of key programs like stealth technology demonstrate.) In some of these cases, Obama wisely kept many of the same architects who did the innovative work under Bush and expanded their influence and authority. So, the Republican nominee should ask, in what ways will Obama's successor have a larger and more powerful toolbox than the one Obama got to use?
Framing Obama's national security successes this way cuts sharply against the triumphalism that characterizes the White House communications operation. And, as the saying goes, it has the additional virtue of being true.
Republicans do not need to fear an accurate and fair evaluation of the record. But they will have to do the hard work of supplying it. Careless sound bites won't cut it this time around.
Update: When I said Ryan Crocker above of course I meant James Jeffrey. Crocker was an able Ambassador to Iraq under Bush and is now an able Ambassador to Afghanistan. James Jeffrey replaced Chris Hill in 2010 and, by all accounts, has worked assiduously to advance U.S. interests in Iraq.
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration is sending contradictory messages on a crucially important national security subject. At the NATO Defense Ministers' meeting in Brussels, Leon Panetta seemed to accelerate the withdrawal timeline for Afghanistan from the end of 2014 -- what NATO nations have been committed to -- to "mid-to late 2013." In Chicago, meanwhile, the President's Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes insisted there will be no change to the 2014 plan, warning that "We will need allies to remain committed to that goal." The president's Special Assistant for European Affairs Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, evidently ignorant of Panetta's statement, assured reporters that the Secretary of Defense "will be very clear about our plans to remain on the Lisbon timeline."
The evident confusion among senior policy makers in the administration prefigures the administration's cratering commitment to win the war in Afghanistan. The White House has narrowed its war aims from defeating all threats to only defeating al Qaeda. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, testified to Congress this week that the deaths of senior al Qaeda leadership have brought us to a "critical transitional phase for the terrorist threat," in which the organization has a better than 50 percent probability of fragmenting and becoming incapable of mass-casualty attacks.
The White House appears set to use progress against al Qaeda as justification for accelerating an end to the war in Afghanistan. Since the president has concluded that we aren't fighting the Taliban, just al Qaeda, no need to stick around Afghanistan until the government of that country can provide security and prevent recidivism to Taliban control. The president will declare victory for having taken from al Qaeda the ability to organize large scale attacks, and piously intone that nation building in Afghanistan is Afghanistan's responsibility.
This policy will not win the war in Afghanistan. It will not even end the war in Afghanistan. It will only end our involvement in that ongoing war. Because arbitrary timelines do not translate into having achieved the objectives that cause enemies to throw down their weapons. And it is the enemy ceasing to contest our objectives that constitutes winning. Interrogations with prisoners in Afghanistan have caused the American military to conclude that "Once ISAF is no longer a factor, Taliban consider their victory inevitable."
Secretary Panetta's public affairs folks will likely spend a few days prettying up the mess, emphasizing the secretary was referring to the transition from combat operations to advising and training Afghans. But the damage has been done. As Michael Clarke of Britain's Royal United Services Institute said, "the suspicion that America is going to pull out early will create a self-fulfilling prophecy and there will be a rush to the exit." The Obama administration created this problem by the president's own arbitrary timeline. It is hard to blame Nicolas Sarkozy for playing politics with the issue; politicization is contagious, and allies caught it from President Obama.
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Over at the indispensable Cable, word comes that the White House is now pushing the line that President Obama eschews the notion of "American decline," and has even become a devoted reader of Bob Kagan. As presidential reading lists go, this is a welcome development. If present trends continue, perhaps the White House communications shop will soon issue a story noting that President Obama is also a reader of Shadow Government? [ed. Dream on! Are you just saying this to bait the anonymous snarky responses that will soon appear in the "Comments" section? Or are you in denial that the President is much more likely to read Dan Drezner's blog? Who, by the way, is funnier than you -- and also doesn't believe in American decline.]
All kidding aside, this is a serious issue that merits some scrutiny. On the one hand, President Obama's rhetorical rejection of American decline is significant and welcome, precisely because presidential rhetoric plays a role in forming a nation's character and actions. As I have commented before, if a nation's leadership and citizens start believing the nation is in decline, it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and infecting the nation's actions.
But presidential rhetoric is only a small part of the decline debate. Actions and policies are more important. So before junior White House staff start emulating their boss's reported new reading tastes and prompt a surge in Pennsylvania Avenue subscriptions to the likes of the Weekly Standard (to our friends at the Standard: may it be thus!), it is worth taking a closer look at this claim that the Obama administration rejects American decline.
This theme not inconveniently comes in an election year, as President Obama attempts to lay out his policy successes. As many others have pointed out, the White House seems reluctant to run on his major domestic policy initiatives such as ObamaCare or the $787 billion stimulus, judging by their almost complete absence from the State of the Union address. Instead, part of the campaign strategy seems to be pointing to foreign policy successes, such as in Obama's recent interview with Fareed Zakaria (himself a frequent apostle of American decline) where the president repeatedly claims that America's standing in the world is better than it was three years ago.
The inconvenient truth behind this claim is that most the Obama administration's foreign policy successes have come from adopting policies and strategies from the Bush administration. While as Jackson Diehl among others has pointed out, most of the Obama administration's signature initiatives have been failures. On the explicit question of American decline, rather than offering a full-throated rebuttal in his interview with Zakaria, Obama seems curiously ambivalent. On the one hand he strongly affirms American global leadership and repeats Madeleine Albright's description of the United States as the "indispensable nation," but on the other hand he says it is "inevitable" that China will overtake the United States as the world's largest economy.
Besides being a gifted journalist, Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker has also emerged as one of the White House's favored conduits for channeling the Administration's mindset and messages. For example, earlier this week Lizza published an article based on exclusive access he'd been given by the White House to internal decision memos on domestic policy. And it was also Lizza who received extensive access from senior administration officials for his famous profile of the White House's foreign policy last spring. Most notorious is the "leading from behind" phrase that the White House has regretted ever since, but the context it came from in the article is revealing and bears recalling (emphasis added):
Nonetheless, Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President's actions in Libya as "leading from behind." That's not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It's a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.
This deliberate message from the White House probably bears a closer resemblance to President Obama's strategic mindset than election year sit-downs with journalists or campaign lines from State of the Union addresses. Why? Because it also reflects many of the administration's actions. Such as the drawdown decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan that seemed to reflect political timetables more than conditions on the ground and commitments to maintaining American credibility. Or the recent "pivot" to Asia, which as many of us have pointed out is a welcome assertion of American presence in a strategic region but loses its potency if it is under-resourced, and presented as a retreat elsewhere because of our diminished capabilities. Or the administration's persistent refusal to make any serious cuts and reforms to the domestic entitlements that are fueling our runaway debt -- while the only spending cuts the White House has actually implemented are to the defense budget, which as Gary Schmitt points out is what we can least afford. And yes, even "leading from behind" our European allies during the Libya intervention.
Given the above actions the administration has taken that do diminish America's power and credibility in the world, is America actually in decline? No -- not yet anyway. Bob Kagan is correct. Our nation has too many strengths and is too resilient to be set back that much in such a short time. America's problems are considerable, but I would still rather have our challenges than the problems facing any other nation, whether China's brittle governance, imbalanced economy, demographic troubles, and resentful neighbors, or the European Union's currency and debt crisis, democratic deficit, and anemic defense capabilities. Rather, the worry is that the Obama administration's combination of actions and inactions are setting the United States on a trajectory towards decline -- a trajectory that if it continues unabated will be hard to arrest.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
A favorite topic for FP bloggers is the so-called gap between practicing academics and practicing policymakers. I have weighed in, but see also contributions from Dan Drezner (here or here and Steve Walt).
It is an important topic (at least to "yakademics" like me -- I don't sense it has quite the burning appeal for my non-academic Shadow Government teammates) and well worth the focused attention it has received. There are several excellent programs designed to help bridge it, including one run by Eliot Cohen and Tom Keaney at SAIS, another by my Duke colleague Bruce Jentleson and Berkeley's Steve Weber and American U's Jim Goldgeier, and a third by Dick Betts at Columbia. There is probably room for more such efforts.
But at the risk of undercutting the urgent language used in grant applications, I think it is only fair to point out that the situation may not be irredeemably bleak. I just had the pleasure of reading through the most recent issue of International Security, the top academic journal in the field of security studies and one of the highest-impact journals in the entire discipline of political science. I was struck by how policy relevant the issue was, without sacrificing in any way academic rigor. Mind you, the articles were too long and perhaps on the academic side to make the reading list of, say, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. But policymakers would benefit from understanding the arguments contained therein and foreign policy specialists inside the administration would benefit from digging into some of the articles more closely.
Consider the menu:
Finally, note an interesting fact: the issue predominantly features the work of junior scholars, in some cases scholars not yet holding a tenure track position. (Interestingly, one of the IS authors has made his own useful contribution to the debate about the gap.) Perhaps the emerging generation has not gotten the word about the gap crisis. Or perhaps they are already well on their way to fixing it.
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Grand strategy appears to be the flavor of the month in the strategic community. I have planned or been invited to numerous conferences looking at the topic and the debates on this topic are as lively as I can remember in a long time. Just recently, I gave a talk to a grand strategy conference at NDU on the myths that afflict the field. Here is the gist of the talk.
Myth 1: The U.S.
can't do grand strategy
Many critics claim that the United States is simply too disorganized to do strategy on a grand scale.
In fact, we had a coherent grand strategy during the 19th century build around the Monroe Doctrine. We had a coherent grand strategy during WWII built around winning in Europe first. And we had a coherent grand strategy during the Cold War built around the idea of containment.
Myth 2: The U.S. lost
the ability to do grand strategy when the Soviet Union disappeared
Many critics concede we had a grand strategy during the Cold War, but claim that we haven't had one since. This is by far the most prevalent myth and some of the very best in the business peddle it.
In fact, we have had a coherent, bipartisan, and largely successful grand strategy from Bush to Clinton to Bush to Obama
Myth 3: A grand
strategy has to have a 3-syllable label that rhymes with "ainment"
This gets to the heart of why you get the odd argument that we had a grand strategy during the Cold War but we haven't since. When critics say that we haven't had a grand strategy since the end of the Cold War, what they really mean is that we haven't had a label like "containment" that enjoys widespread popularity. This is true, but trivial.
In fact, since the fall of the Soviet Union a 5-pillar grand strategy has been clearly discernible:
Pillar I. The velvet covered iron fist. Iron fist: build a military stronger than what is needed for near-term threats to dissuade a would-be hostile rival from achieving peer status. Velvet covered: accommodate major powers on issues, giving them a larger stake in the international distribution of goodies than their military strength would command to dissuade a near-peer from starting a hostile rivalry.
Pillar 2. Make the world more like us politically by promoting the spread of democracy.
Pillar 3. Make the world more like us economically by promoting the spread of markets and globalization.
Pillar 4. Focus on WMD proliferation to rogue states as the top tier national security threat.
Pillar 5 (added by George W. Bush). Focus on terrorist networks of global reach inspired by militant Islamist ideologies as another top tier national security threat, i.e. co-equal with WMD in the hands of rogue states. The nexus of 4 & 5 is the ne plus ultra threat.
President has finished up a grueling trip to the Asia-Pacific region and can
generally feel good about what he accomplished. Like everything this President
does, however, the trip was very heavy on political spin. His team could not
stop talking about their "pivot" to Asia. Whether this is a foreign
policy strategy or just rhetoric in an election year, it deserves careful and
considered deconstruction. Our colleague Dan Blumenthal began the critique
last week by rightly pointing out that the pivot doesn't work when you
hollow out defense spending. And Dan is not alone; Tom Donnelly also pointed out
some of the flaws
with the pivot concept. Now that the trip is over, more
can be said.
The Indo-Pacific region is the fastest-growing economic zone in the world; home to six of the eight known nuclear weapons states or proliferators (US, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea); and scene of both 21st century economic integration and 19th century balance-of-power rivalry. The United States is a Pacific power with interests, influence, allies and territory right at the center of the region. Polling by the German Marshall Fund of the United States shows that Americans, by a considerable margin, believe Asia is more important to their country's national interests than Europe. At the same time, Asians have real questions about American staying power in their region (as they have on-and-off since Vietnam).
The president's success in signaling high-level American attention to the region should be reassuring to nervous friends and allies. Enactment of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (after years of deferring to the Democratic Party's labor base) and progress on negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership put momentum behind the goal of a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific that President Bush put forward. President Obama's conversion to these policies and the cause of trade liberalization has come late, but it is welcome nonetheless.
It also appears that despite embracing dangerously deep defense cuts overall, the Obama administration has decided that force structure reductions will mostly come in Europe and not Asia. Secretary of Defense Panetta sent that signal on his first trip to Asia, and it helped to blunt the growing concerns about American defense capabilities in the region.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deserves credit for spending more time on
and in Asia than most of her immediate predecessors. For all those reasons,
whether it is called a "pivot" or not, the administration's increasing focus on
Asia has big pros.
But is a "pivot" the right way to frame this? First of all, without resources the big talk will quickly seem hollow to friends and foes alike. The United States is facing the prospect of up to a trillion dollars in defense cuts over the coming decade. Defense cuts of this magnitude cannot but undermine U.S. capabilities, and with them our ability to reassure and deter, in Asia. Defense spending cuts may come out of Europe and Southwest Asia, but when Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Pakistan get hot in the decade ahead, where will the forces come from? If we hollow out our force structure in Europe and Southwest Asia, we set up a situation where forces will eventually be drained out of East Asia. Our friends and adversaries know this.
In addition, the "pivot" spin makes the United States look like a
spastic superpower that swings around focusing on only one region at a time. During
the Cold War, the United States managed a grand strategy that was global in
scope with skill; are we not capable of doing so today, when our freedom of
maneuver and our relative power are in fact greater? It is unbecoming of a
global power; unnerving for our European allies (whose support we also need to
manage China's ascendance); and carries the unfortunate connotation that we may
"pivot" again based on a new, reductionist, one-region-at-a-time
concept of grand strategy.
Finally, by suddenly framing this entire trip as a swing against China, the White House risks unsettling the careful ground work done by American diplomats and military officials over the past year. The Australian base agreement is a good first step toward constructing a dispersed but robust forward presence as we prepare to cope with more missile threats to our forces. But as Teddy Roosevelt said, it is better to speak softly and carry a big stick. Now friendly countries like Indonesia are recoiling against U.S. strategy because of the last minute verbal assault on China. The "pivot" is even more jarring because the administration spent the first year framing Asia strategy in terms of a new U.S.-China bipolar condominium, articulated in the November 2009 Obama-Hu joint statement that trumpeted respect for each others' core interests and followed U.S. decisions to postpone meetings with the Dalai Lama and arms sales to Taiwan. Supporters of a strong U.S.-India relationship in Delhi were actually told by senior Obama administration officials at the time that the United States no longer believes in the concept of the balance of power. You cannot blame them for being a bit confused now. The pivot can be dizzying.
At the end of the day, we suspect the "pivot" is a convenient political frame for the White House to try to explain that the Obama administration remains muscular and strategic, despite its accelerated retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan. When domestic politics intrude on the framing of foreign policy in this way -- especially when it happens so suddenly-- the result can undercut what would otherwise be solid building blocks for a regional strategy in Asia. Still, kudos to those like Secretary Clinton who have remained consistent in their focus on Asia and to those U.S. officials who worked hard to reverse misguided early policies against trade liberalization and an ill-conceived U.S.-China bipolar condominium. Their work paid off on this trip. Meanwhile, let's be clear: superpowers manage rising powers with leadership and steadiness -- not pivots.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
There has been much ado in the media and from the Obama administration about a great strategic shift from the Middle East and South Asia to East Asia. Obama and senior administration officials are making the case for this shift by claiming that we have accomplished our Iraq and Afghanistan goals, and that the time has come to focus on the "real problem": China. This week, the president announced the basing of 2,500 marines in Australia and a pushed for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional free trade agreement that excludes China. The U.S. military has also released some details on its new AirSea battle concept -- an answer to the dense network of submarines, mines, anti-aircraft capabilities, and missiles that China has created to keep the United States out of China's periphery. All of these moves are to be commended. However, they do not and should not add up to a new "pivot." Here are some reasons why:
1) There is no way for the U.S. to project the necessary influence into East Asia if Aghanistan and Pakistan are on fire. One major reason is that if India is tied down in a competition with Pakistan, China, and Iran in Afghanistan, it cannot become the kind of East Asian power we wish it to be. The Bush administration's India strategy was designed to help India break out of its squabbles in South Asia and exert influence in East Asia. A hasty pull-out of Aghanistan will reverse that sensible strategy.
2) China is exercising more influence in the Middle East in ways harmful to our larger goals (e.g., support of Iran). To compete with China in East Asia, we must retain our influence in the Middle East and South Asia and check destabilizing Chinese diplomacy.
3) The deployment of U.S. Marines to Australia and the highlighting of a military concept to respond to China's military build-up are necessary but insufficient first steps. These developments cannot make up for the fact that our military has faced deep cuts in its budget and will face more. No matter what administration officials say, these cuts will affect our posture in Asia profoundly. We need more ships, more aircraft, more missile defense. To be a bit flippant, we are putting Marines in Australia without sufficient equipment to get out of Australia. Our allies and China need to see and feel our presence. That can only be accomplished with more sea patrols, surges in exercises that promote freedom of navigation, and so on.
4) The AirSea battle concept is a serious effort to meet the China challenge. But based on information released about it, the concept suffers from two flaws. First, the resource question -- how would we shut down Chinese military operations without sufficient platforms and munitions? Second, AirSea battle fails to take into account China's nuclear ambitions. China is already a nuclear-armed country with every incentive to continue its build-up of nuclear forces. That is because we have agreed on a bilateral (with Russia) rather than multilateral basis to cap our nuclear forces. Since China is bound by no important arms control treaties, and because we are openly talking about major conventional strikes on the Mainland, China has every reason to seek nuclear parity with us over time.
5) The TPP is a great idea. In particular, securing Japanese agreement to an FTA would be a great success . The question is, are we serious? It took the better part of Obama's term to ratify the FTA with South Korea. Are we really to believe that he will take on his base and sign more major FTAs?
There is no dispute that we need to take serious steps to balance China's power. But we cannot do so by "pivoting" away from two critical areas of the world. We need India to have peaceful borders in order to compete with China, and we need to diminish China's influence in the Middle East. And finally, the Obama Administration needs to resource its stated Asia strategy, which it so far shows little sign of doing.
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The next Republican president needs to look at Brazil as we do Canada and Mexico. Consider that Brazil is currently the sixth or the seventh biggest economy in the world, and depending on whose projections you follow, is forecasted to become the fifth sometime in the next ten years. After 16 years of political and economic stability, targeted social programs, and private sector led growth through the opening of the economy, over 25 million people have been pulled out of poverty.
Much has been written about the major oil discoveries off the coast of Brazil. Some predict that Brazil will be one of the top five oil producers in the world in 2020 and the largest in South America. There is talk of as much as $1 trillion needed to drill off shore in very complicated contexts to achieve these production levels. The business opportunities for American oil and oil service companies and the changes to the way we think about energy security are favorable to the United States.
Brazil is the leading producer and innovator in the field of biofuels with significant portions of their car and truck fleets running on sugar based ethanol.
Not as publicized, but equally important, Brazil has, for the most part, gotten a handle on its rainforest problem and is seeking to balance agriculture (mainly soy and beef production) with preservation of the rainforest. With three center-left governments elected since 2002 with the implicit or explicit backing from the Green party, the debate between agriculture and environment has found a balance the Brazilians are happy with. Recent satellite photos demonstrate that the rainforest is reclaiming over 20 percent of the lands that have been cut down. Ask yourself when was the last time you heard a plea from an environmental NGO to "save the rainforest" and you'll see what I mean.
Brazil is hosting the World Cup and the Summer Olympics over the next five years. Even if we don't take soccer seriously, the rest of the world does and these are both big prestige wins for Brazil and a big opportunity for American business.
Brazil's largest trading partner is China -- something that has happened only in the last five or seven years. Its second is the European Union with the United States close behind. At the same time, the bloom has come off the rose with the Chinese and this may present an opportunity for the United States over the medium term on a free trade agreement between the United States and Brazil. The Brazilians are concerned about the "invasion" of "cheap" Chinese manufactured goods competing with local Brazilian goods. In other words, in the Brazilian Mind: "selling soy to China good. Buying Chinese shoes is bad..." This may be our opportunity to restart bilateral trade talks down the road if this continues to be a source of worry for the Brazilians.
The U.S. embassy in Brazil processes more visas to visit the United States than that of any other country in the world -- more than China. By the way, we are well represented in the country by Ambassador Tom Shannon -- Shadow Government readers will remember him as Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere in Bush 43.
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Getting a shout-out on Drezner's blog can now be crossed off my bucket list. (What's next? Ed. After Dr...comes Du...Dunking in a basketball game.) The New York Times quoted me as worrying that Republican candidates were in danger of surrendering issue ownership on national security. Dan, a.k.a. the Maestro (but not that Maestro), wrote reassuringly that the Republicans were likely to nominate someone like Romney, who has shown himself to be fairly adept on foreign policy. I almost always agree with Dan, and when I don't I usually come to regret it, so let me state up front, I agree with him. But I still think it is worth reminding the Republican primary candidates to do their homework.
The general election may be decided on domestic policy and the economy, but it would be no bad thing if the Republican primary was decided on national security. By this I mean that Republicans should quickly jettison anyone who flunks the commander-in-chief test: can you trust this man or woman with the life and death decisions that land on the president's desk in the Oval Office? That is more important than whether the candidate signed this or that pledge, or whether the candidate compromised to get half-loaf policy decisions through a balky legislature. As disenchanted as the American electorate may be with President Obama, they are not going to vote for a Republican whom they believe cannot be trusted to fulfill the commander-in-chief duties responsibly.
This is good advice any year. It is especially true when the country is still at war. And it may be extra-especially true this year, which could be a man-bites-dog year in terms of the issue advantages of the parties. The Republicans are doing pretty well on all the issues, including many domestic issues where Democrats usually have the advantage. But when it comes to candidate-specific trust, this may be the first election in decades that the Democrats have a comparative advantage on national security, not the economy.
I say comparative advantage, because Republicans could well have an absolute advantage on both. But if I remember my Ricardo (this Ricardo, not that Ricardo), comparative advantage drives trade. Obama's 49-44 approval rating on foreign policy looks much better than his 30-67 approval rating on the economy and so he is likely to play up the former rather than the latter. Put it this way, do you think Obama's speechwriters will write more applause lines containing the words "health care reform" or "Osama Bin Laden"?
I have heard Republicans tell me that Obama won't be able to run on national security experience because no Republican candidate will be as inexperienced as candidate Obama was in 2008. I can think of a candidate or two who could give Obama of 2008 a run for his money on the inexperience contest, but that is the wrong way to think about the matter anyway. Republicans aren't running against Obama of 2008. They are running against Obama of 2012 and Obama of 2012 has had quite a lot of national security and foreign policy experience.
Not all of the experience is good, of course, but it is substantial nonetheless. And already, White House spinners are straight-facedly leveling the same not-ready-for-the-job critiques at Republicans that Hillary Clinton leveled at Obama four years ago.
So yes, Dan, if Republicans nominate Romney, I can rest easy about the Republican brand. But all of the candidates, including the eventual losers, could help matters by doing their part to reassure voters that Republicans have earned their trust in this vital area.
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Having spent a week in Brasilia, Sao Paulo, and Rio meeting with senior representatives of the Brazilian government and major influencers in the country, it's clear to me that Republicans and conservatives need to understand that Brazil could be as consequential to the United States in the next twenty years as Canada or Mexico are to us now. The next Republican president needs to make Brazil a top priority by firstly, naming a high-level ambassador and secondly, making Brazil one of his first stops overseas.
Brazil is still considered a developing country, but this classification is about ten years out of date. The United States needs to develop new ways to work with countries like Brazil that are on their way to becoming industrialized countries. Instead of foreign aid and development, we have "cooperation interests" with Brazil that are linked to our foreign policy, national security, and commercial interests.
Republicans and conservatives, like others across the political spectrum, have historically had other interests in the region (e.g. Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia, and Nicaragua to name a few). Brazil has not presented itself to the United States as either a security threat or much of a market. There, of course, have been historical ties that are often overlooked and ignored (e.g. Brazil sending troops to fight on the Allies' side in World War II).
The Brazilians have been too poor, too self involved, or too chaotic to warrant much of our attention or for them to pay us too much attention. Also, in moments of delusions of grandeur, the Brazilians have seen themselves almost as rivals to us -- something we have not reciprocated for the simple fact that Brazil has not been on our radar.
Over the last 20 years, much of the energy in the relationship has been around the environment. Many will remember the "Save the Rainforest" campaigns focusing on the Amazon of the late 80s and early 90s.
Finally, how many people in the United States actually speak Portuguese who do not have some family tie to the language? The Latin Americanists, almost to a person, speak Spanish and focus on Spanish speaking countries for good reasons. All of the above is changing or is going to change.
The window of opportunity is there.
Following the lead of Presidents George W. Bush and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Presidents Barack Obama and President Dilma Rousseff have been deepening relations between the two countries since at least 2005, with more frequent meetings and on-going high-level government dialogues. Rousseff and her Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota are broadly pro-American. We have an opportunity to consolidate this relationship and move it from a third level relationship to a first level relationship over the next 10 years. If there is a Republican in the White House in 2013, we need to build on the Bush/Obama legacy, create an office in the State Department focused solely on Brazil, just as we have for Canada, and find new, more strategic ways to work together through networks that exist or that need to be built between our two societies.
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The Obama administration's decision to deploy 100 U.S. special operations forces to Uganda to help defeat the ludicrously barbaric Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) -- or, in Obama's lawyer-esque euphemism, to "remov[e] from the battlefield Joseph Kony and other senior leadership of the LRA," -- is another example of just how muddy the Obama foreign-policy is.
To start with, deploying troops to defeat Africa's Hitler, as Kony will inevitably be called any day now, is not "in the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States," as Obama claimed in his letter to Congress. The LRA is not even a remote threat to our homeland, our allies, or our way of life. We have no important economic stake in Uganda or the region. Uganda is even more removed than Libya from vital American security interests -- and Libya's war was not "a vital interest of the United States," according to the Secretary of Defense who oversaw our intervention there. Uganda's fight is about as peripheral as it gets.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't go there. Obama would be on safer grounds if he gave up all pretense of our having an interest in Uganda and simply said "We're going after Joseph Kony because he's an insane barbarian with guns and if we don't take care of him, no one will." The United States is the global provider of public goods, and seeing off a well-armed lunatic megalomaniac wreaking havoc in states too failed to protect themselves might just be our human duty. Jonah Goldberg thinks so.
But what really confuses me is Obama's willingness to embark on adventures in Libya and Uganda while simultaneously calling for some of the deepest cuts in the defense budget in twenty years.
According to this analysis by Lt.Gen. David Barno, looming budget cuts may compel us to cut an aircraft carrier, reduce our strategic airlift, slow down or halt our procurement of next-generation weaponry, and eliminate several divisions from the Army and Marine Corps. Whether or not you think these cuts make sense, the question should be obvious: if we are in an age of austerity and cannot afford the missions and force posture we have, what are we doing taking on more?
The Ugandan deployment is unlikely to be the straw that breaks the budget camel's back. Considered in isolation, it amounts to less than a rounding error. But there are two reasons to be wary. First, it will almost certainly grow larger. Today, 100 advisors; tomorrow, a Foreign Military Financing (FMF) package; next year, access to excess equipment; and then more trainers to teach them how to use all the new equipment -- and soon Uganda costs $1 billion a year. Add in Libya and the next three interventions, and that's real money.
Second, Uganda appears to be a part of a pattern, of which Libya was also a part. Uganda and Libya together illustrate that Obama is perfectly comfortable using the U.S. armed forces not only in service of vital U.S. security interests, but in defense of peripheral interests, for humanitarian goals, and in defense of the global commons. I think those are at valid, defensible roles -- they are the price of global leadership which Obama says he wants to maintain. But those roles cost money.
By cutting budgets with one hand while maintaining U.S. military commitments around the world with the other, Obama is showing a lack of strategic thinking. A coherent strategy would match resources to requirements, increasing the former if insufficient, reducing the latter if necessary. Obama is doing neither. If Obama is going to use the military these kinds of missions, he'd better be prepared to foot the bill. If he, or Congress, is not willing to pay up, the missions to Uganda and Libya should be the first we no longer expect our military to perform.
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The administration announced on Oct. 19 that talks will resume with North Korea in Geneva and that a new team will represent the U.S. side. Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, the administration's Special Envoy on North Korea and the distinguished Dean of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, will make Geneva his last official meeting before stepping down. He will be replaced by Glyn Davies, the current ambassador to the IAEA. Meanwhile, Ford Hart, one of the Department's top China hands, will continue to serve as U.S. representative to the Six Party Talks.
This shift demonstrates several things about the Obama administration's diplomacy. First, it signals the end of candidate Obama's promise of dramatic new engagement strategies with the world's most difficult regimes. High profile special envoys (Mitchell to the Middle East, Grayson to Sudan, Holbrooke to Af/Pak, Bosworth to North Korea) are being replaced by steady but low-profile professionals from within the foreign service. Davies is only the most recent example. It turns out, as John McCain warned in 2008, that the problem with these regimes is NOT that we lack unconditional high-level negotiations. The Obama team realized that early on, but it takes a little time to reverse signature foreign policy promises.
The other factor at play, I suspect, is the 2012 election. I recall that in 2004 the White House began imposing message discipline and tighter controls over sensitive foreign policy issues like North Korea, Taiwan, and Iraq. High profile special envoys and message discipline tend not to go together, and the Obama White House is clearing the decks for a major fight for the presidency next year.
Finally, lower key professionals make sense at a time when North Korea is unlikely to yield much ground. Big breakthroughs are hard to imagine, given the fact that Pyongyang tested a nuclear device, conducted two lethal attacks on South Korea, and revealed its uranium enrichment program since the last tentative agreement was reached on denuclearization in October 2008. Of course, they also failed to implement their side of that agreement -- provision of verification protocols -- even after we unilaterally lifted sanctions to the great dismay of our Japanese and Korean allies. The North is in a more talkative mood, but Pyongyang has also been telegraphing its intention to consummate its nuclear weapons status in 2012 for some time. The talks in Geneva will at best yield something of a time out in which the North freezes its provocations and perhaps its facilities at Yongbyon. However, we know from experience that they will only agree to easily reversible steps and that we will likely have another crisis before too long -perhaps even in 2012. It is unlikely therefore that we, Japan or Korea will pay much to rent the North Korean nuclear program for a few months all over again. On the other hand, Washington, Seoul, and Beijing all have elections or leadership changes in 2012 and might be willing to take some steps if it keeps things quiet with North Korea for a while.
Given those realities, the team running North Korea diplomacy is reassuring. They are some of the best professionals in the Foreign Service and a bit like the unflappable cops on the old black and white TV shows. I don't expect we will have a problem with any melodramatic rush for supposedly historic breakthroughs.
"Just the facts, Ma'am."
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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.