Shadow Government

Andrew Bacevich and the Cold War analogy

By Peter Feaver

Professor Andy Bacevich, a prolific critic of American foreign policy, has proposed an intriguing grand strategy for the conflict formerly called the war on terror: let's approach the war on terror as if it were another Cold War. Since Andy knows first-hand the personal tragedy of these wars -- his son died while serving in the Army in Iraq -- his powerful voice of moral authority garners a respectful audience every time he speaks on the subject.

I am sympathetic to the Cold War frame and offered it as a useful way for thinking about the problem of terrorism almost exactly 8 years ago, as did other commentators -- notably, Eliot Cohen. We thought that the framework was a useful antidote to the pre-9/11 mindset which viewed terrorism narrowly through the lens of law enforcement and thus limited policymakers only to a very restricted set of law enforcement tools. The broader Cold War frame incorporated all of the law enforcement tools, plus additional ones. I don't remember Andy (whom I consider to be a friend and long-time debating partner) being persuaded by our reasoning then; I rather recall him thinking it would lead to what he calls American "militarism." But evidently he has come around to our point of view now.

In so doing, he joins President Bush, who used that frame in his 2006 National Security Strategy and his follow-on National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. The three pillars Andy highlights would all produce emphatic head-nodding from any Bush administration alum. Pursue decapitation, meaning tracking and killing the terrorist leaders? Of course, and the Bush administration dramatically ramped up these efforts. Pursue containment, meaning improving law enforcement, tracking vigorously international financial transactions and weapons transfers?  Absolutely, and the Bush administration was very innovative in these areas. Compete with the jihadis on both a material and an ideological terrain? Again, this was a centerpiece of the Bush administration effort.

Even Andy's eloquent peroration -- "The upshot is that by modifying the way we live -- attending to pressing issues of poverty, injustice, exploitation of women and the global environmental crisis -- we might through our example induce the people of the Islamic world to consider modifying the way they live." -- reads like one of President Bush's speeches. If a Bush speechwriter were penning it, he might throw in a reference or two touting No Child Left Behind, the President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, the Malaria Initiative, the efforts in women's education, and the increased funding for renewable energy, all of which (and more) were viewed in much the same way Andy is suggesting here: part of an all-elements-of-national-power comprehensive approach to combating terrorism at both the material and ideological levels.

Now I recognize that many people, chief among them the current administration, would all argue that the Bush administration should have done even more on all of those dimensions. But the strategic pillars Andy recommends did comprise important parts of the Bush strategy and, on each of these dimensions, the Obama team has been trying to do the same thing, only harder, faster, and better.

Where he departs from what might be considered Bush/Obama orthodoxy is when Andy suggests that we can accomplish all of this even better if only we would abandon the fight in Afghanistan and also in Iraq (the Iraq point is implicit in his most recent articulation, but explicit elsewhere in Andy's writings). That is the novel bit of his proposal: the notion that the Cold War frame works better if only we would get out of Afghanistan (and Iraq). That was not President Bush's view and, so far at least with respect to Afghanistan, that is not what President Obama has embraced.

Nor does it follow inexorably from the Cold War frame. One can view the larger conflict as a Cold War, and still believe it is essential to prevail in theater combat in Afghanistan. One can even argue, as McChrystal, Petraeus, Bush, and Obama have, that prevailing in Afghanistan is an important -- Obama used to call it a necessary -- step in prevailing in that larger contest. Andy's new spin on grand strategy is in promising that we have a better shot at winning the larger contest if only we embrace the inevitability of defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the sooner the better.

It is a very enticing vision, but it rests on some hazy premises. Yes, we would prefer to be able to whack the terrorists from afar and do so in a fashion in which no civilians die. But who will give us the pin-point intelligence (and so much more of it than we are getting now), after we have abandoned our erstwhile allies in Afghanistan and Iraq? How often will the terrorist leaders we are hunting show up within range of assault helicopters away from civilian population centers, thus allowing us to do the Delta Force strikes Andy favors rather than the Predator strikes we have increasingly relied upon?  How can we be sure that our departure will encourage the Muslim world to see the terrorists as offering only a "retrograde version of Islam" and not, in fact, as the "stronger horse" that has defeated its second great superpower?

As long as one elides over these tough questions, one can stay focused on this promise that we can have it all and for less sacrifice, more gain for less pain, more security for less security operations. Such a vision is far more enticing than McChrystal's somber and stark catalogue of the costs entailed in pursuing success, or the similarly painstaking evaluation of the alternatives that leaves Steve Biddle endorsing a surge in Afghanistan.

Indeed, Andy's message is so enticing, I would be surprised if we don't hear this chorus growing. The question is: Will President Obama join it?

Shadow Government

How's Obama doing on Iran so far?

By Peter Feaver

It is early but perhaps not too early to do a quick assessment on how Team Obama is doing on the three things I am tracking on the Iran issue.

On the micro-tactics level of whether the Team was rattled by the news, the early indications are mixed but on the whole favorable. On the positive side, the New York Times has an extensive tic-toc that makes it clear that the administration had been developing a game-plan for the rollout of this information for quite some time. And Obama knew that the Iranians knew that we knew and were developing a plan to deal with the contingency that Iran forced our hand. On the negative side, even though Obama understood that our hand could be forced at any time, the Iranians were nevertheless able to gain a modest tactical advantage by determining the release of the information and by releasing it before we had adequately briefed our Security Council partners. As a result, we lost an important opportunity: using President Obama’s historic chairing of the UN Security Council meeting to unveil the information. Still, Team Obama adjusted to the fluidity of the unfolding events and it probably helped that the UNGA duties meant the President was focused on foreign policy and not doing yet another health care photo-op. I score this as moderately encouraging. Barring further revelations, this metric is probably complete.

On the more serious matter of whether the Obama team is poised to exploit this opportunity to establish the leverage they need, the early indicators may be a wee bit less promising. Consider this quote from that same NYT article:

There was “a fair amount at anger” within the administration over Iran’s disclosure, a senior administration official said. But there was also some satisfaction. A second senior official said: “Everybody’s been asking, ‘Where’s our leverage?’ Well, now we just got that leverage.”

If the advisor meant “leverage over Iran,” then I am worried. The public awareness that Iran has been cheating does not really contribute much leverage over Iran. Yes, it is embarrassing for them, and it means that Ahmadinejad and others will squirm for a while trying to answer awkward questions. But it does not provide us much real leverage, the sort of leverage that would adjust the Iranian regime’s cost-benefit calculation.

If, however, the advisor meant “leverage over Russia and China and, heck, even France, Germany, Britain, and India,” then I am encouraged. For that is the real impact of this news: it makes the case for sanctions stronger than ever, and it provides the Obama team with their best chance to get the sanctions before negotiations start in earnest rather than waiting until the negotiations fail and then trying to get the sanctions imposed. The “try negotiations first and then try sanctions” sequence had been Obama’s strategy. I did not meet anyone with real experience in governing who would say (off-the-record) that the sanctions would be forthcoming. There are simply too many exit ramps available for our wobbly partners in that sequence: Did negotiations fail because of the Iranians, or was it someone else’s fault? Have they really failed? Wasn’t there an encouraging exchange or two we should explore again? The problem with “tools of a last resort” is that in international diplomacy one can never know when the last resort has been reached.

So the old plan was this: try to negotiate with the Iranians without much leverage on our side (because we had not yet imposed the crippling sanctions) -- and then, when the negotiations fail, try to persuade our partners that the failure was due to Iranian misbehavior and so get them to do what they have refused for years to do and impose crippling sanctions. Then we would have leverage to try negotiations again.

What I can’t tell yet is whether the Obama team realizes they have an opportunity now to forge a plan with a (modestly) higher likelihood of success: use the revealed Iranian duplicity to exploit new-found (and doubtless temporary) Russian resolve to impose the crippling sanctions now. With the United States holding (again, temporarily) the UNSC chair, we can adjust the agenda in this way and with all those soft power assets to spend, President Obama might be able to pull it off. A brief window of opportunity has been opened. Do our leaders realize that, and are they marshalling the forces to jump through the window?

Which leads us to the third indicator: how Team Obama is handling interactions with the “in-laws.” The quality of the interactions depends on results and, of course, it is too early to see any real results. (I haven’t seen anything solid on the Israeli angle, but my eyes are peeled.) The coding of this metric depends on the coding of the second metric. If Obama is using this news to assemble leverage that consists of little more than lots of stern faces on our side of the negotiating table on October 1 coupled with some sincere promises from those stern-faced stalwarts that if the Iranians mess with us again then this time, really, we will consider crippling economic sanctions -- well, in that case, I think his diplomacy and powers of persuasion will be sufficient to get the in-laws on board such a leaky vessel. But if he is trying to assemble serious leverage now so that negotiations have the best possible chance of producing results, then he will face his toughest diplomatic challenge of his young tenure, and we will soon see whether he is succeeding in that task.