Shadow Government

What is David Rothkopf smoking?

By Christian Brose

If you haven't yet read David Rothkopf's article in yesterday's Washington Post, I'll save you the headache. Claim: Hillary Clinton is "overseeing what may be the most profound change in U.S. foreign policy in decades." Evidence: She engages with emerging powers, believes diplomacy isn't just about working with governments, plays well with others, wants to get more money for the State Department and to "rethink development" (confirming or even naming a director of USAID would be a good start), hires a Goldman veteran to take on State's economics portfolio (unlike Reuben Jeffrey, right?), is "leaving behind old doctrines and labels" (presumably for newer, less descriptive ones), and is harnessing the "new" power of cell phones and the interwebs. What is of value here is distinctly non-revolutionary; the rest is just hot air and shameless ass-kissing. Presumably it is designed to help Clinton. Well, with friends like these...

It would be one thing if these claims were made by, say, my mom -- and if she wrote them in, say, an email. But how is it possible for anyone who thinks and writes about foreign policy for a living -- anyone who has not completely and unquestioningly drunk the Obama kool-aid, or who isn't financially obligated to sell it -- to think that Hillary Clinton, or even Barack Obama, is transforming U.S. foreign policy? I've been droning on for 10 months now about how this administration would largely continue most of the foreign policy it inherited from its predecessor, and Rothkopf's attempt to argue the opposite case proves my point better than anything I've yet written. Apparently Rothkopf was one of the many members of the foreign policy hoi-polloi that went into intellectual hibernation in 2004 and only awoke this January.

Otherwise he would have recognized that, as Clinton continues to "rethink development", she'll mostly be building on the thinking behind Bush-era advancements like the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the foreign assistance reform process, the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and Provincial Reconstruction Teams. The same goes for "rethinking the very nature of diplomacy." It's already been rethought. And the hard part isn't getting more resources, but enacting the (often unpopular) reforms that most now agree need to happen.

Had Rothkopf  been paying attention these past few years, he also might have recognized that many of the new diplomatic partnerships to solve those global, transnational problems that Obama and Clinton talk about so often -- dare I say, the "minilateralism" agenda -- were Bush administration creations: not just the G-20, as Rothkopf concedes, but also the Proliferation Security Initiative, the Major Economies Forum on Energy Security and Climate Change, the GCC+2, the P5+1, the Quartet (and the Arab Quartet), the Global Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza, the Six Party framework, etc., etc.

He might have understood that America's new strategic relationships with emerging powers are also a Bush-era inheritance. As is the recognition of what Rothkopf calls "the indispensability of collaborating with others." (For example, he quotes approvingly from Clinton's CFR speech: "We will put special emphasis on encouraging major and emerging global powers -- China, India, Russia and Brazil, as well as Turkey, Indonesia and South Africa -- to be full partners in tackling the global agenda." Sounds good to me, but I thought it sounded even better four years ago in the original Condi: "In the 21st century, emerging nations like India and China and Brazil and Egypt and Indonesia and South Africa are increasingly shaping the course of history.... And the United States is working with our many partners ... to build a true form of global stability, a balance of power that favors freedom.")

I could go on, but suffice it to say, this does not a transformation make.

What's more annoying is that Rothkopf totally misses and even obscures the real point about Obama and Clinton's foreign policy thus far: It's not how much or how little they have changed things up until now, but what they have to show for their efforts. To be fair, it's not nothing. They have cleared the air and signaled a fresh start, and recent polls confirm that many in the world are thinking better about America since Obama took over. That's good, but actual cooperation has not always followed. Our NATO allies have passed on sending more troops to Afghanistan and on lifting restrictions on those already there. Nor are they and others lining up to help us close Guantanamo. India and China don't share any of Obama's enthusiasm for a climate change deal. Virtually the only thing we can agree on with Russia is that we should only have a couple thousand nukes between us. Pakistan is still dysfunctional and supporting terrorism. Iran and North Korea are all middle fingers and no unclenched fists. Time will tell of course, but rarely has a U.S. administration been so well liked, so eager to engage with others, and had so little to show for it.

This should be a helpful reminder that the world doesn't revolve around America, even if Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are leading its foreign policy. We still live in a world of nations, and those nations have interests, and where their basic interests clash with ours, these nations won't be any more willing to compromise them for America's sake. This trend is only becoming more pronounced, as all those big emerging powers grow bigger, and stronger, and richer, and more assertive in pushing their interests. This is today's reality, and it has been mugging the Obama administration since January. If only reality would do a little more mugging of David Rothkopf. It might pull him out of his la-la-land and spare him future embarrassment.

Shadow Government

It's gut-check time, Mr. President

By Peter Feaver

It does not look like the world will wait while we sort out healthcare. On the contrary, it is looking more and more like gut-check time for our wartime Commander-in-Chief. He is facing serious challenges in both of his major military conflicts, Iraq and Afghanistan, and very ominous clouds on a third front, Iran. I think in his first 8 months or so in office President Obama has surpassed the gloomiest predictions about how he would handle the portion of the job for which he had the least preparation. But the next couple months will really test his mettle.

The challenge on the Iraqi front is multifaceted, but the aspect that may be most critical will be how he deals with Iraqi over-confidence. The recent bombings underscore that it is woefully premature to declare "mission accomplished" in the counter-insurgency. The 2007 surge strategy reversed the trajectory in Iraq, but there is still a long way to go. Perhaps the phased withdrawal laid out under the Status of Forces agreement will be gradual enough to meet President Obama's cleverly-formulated goal of "leaving Iraq more responsibly than we went into Iraq." But ever since we transferred sovereignty to Iraqi authorities in 2005, a persistent pattern has emerged: Iraqis have been over-confident in their ability to govern and provide security and have been underwhelming in their delivery of the same. They have done well where U.S. forces have been well-aligned, well-resourced, and well-led. They have done much less well in other areas. Unfortunately, U.S. leverage over the Iraqis is diminishing on an almost daily basis and the faster we pull out the faster our leverage erodes.

This is a challenge to Obama because the facts on the ground in Iraq may require that he resist the political instincts he has honed in a domestic context, all of which will be pushing him to get out of Iraq as fast as the logistics train will let him.

The domestic context is also a critical factor in the Afghanistan challenge. As a recent Washington Post poll makes clear, public support for the Afghan mission is starting to wobble. There is even a slim majority giving the negative answer on the "is it worth it" question. I have never liked that question because it involves almost hopelessly complex and incommensurate judgments. From a policy point of view, what matters the most is the public's stomach for continuing the fight and I do not believe that the "worth it" question taps into that well. The poll is somewhat more encouraging on the dimension that the Gelpi-Feaver-Reifler model identifies as key: optimism about eventual success. The public shows continued optimism on that score and I believe that translates into a reservoir of public support that President Obama can tap.

The challenge for Obama is that his military advisors and independent experts may believe that eventual success requires the commitment of additional troops and resources to Afghanistan. And on the question of more troops, the recent poll makes clear, Obama does not have a reservoir of support -- indeed, the numbers are running nearly 2-to-1 for reducing rather than increasing troops. President Obama could shift those numbers, if he came to believe that an increase was necessary and if he committed the political capital and the bully pulpit to the job. But he would be dealing primarily with skeptics within his party. He enjoys robust support from across the aisle. His problem is with the majority opinion of his own party. At a time when he is facing a within-party backlash over health care, can he also do what it takes to bring his partisan troops in line?  As Will Inboden points out, the great presidents with which he likes to compare himself managed this tricky maneuver; the not-so-great ones he does not want to emulate did not.

The third great Commander-in-Chief challenge is still on the horizon and not (yet) predominantly military in form: Iran. Over the next couple months, the deadlines President Obama himself set for his Iran policy will come due. By mid-September, we will see whether the Iranians respond meaningfully to the offer of direct negotiations. By the end of the year, President Obama has promised to reassess whether this gambit has yielded results. At best, the Israelis may be on a similar clock; at worst, their clock may be ticking even faster. That means that within a few short months, at a time when both Iraq and even more probably Afghanistan will be constituting grave military challenges, President Obama will have a fateful military decision to make concerning Iran. If the diplomatic track does not produce results, and if he chooses to eschew the military option, he still will face the daunting challenge of persuading the Israelis to eschew the military option.

The last several weeks have marked a consequential chapter in how historians will evaluate President Obama's domestic legacy. The next several months could be an equally consequential chapter for how historians will evaluate him as Commander in Chief. For all of our sakes, I hope he performs well.