Shadow Government

Assessing a benchmark in Obama’s 'yes, but' strategy

The end of the NonProliferation Treaty Review conference provides an opportunity to assess how well President Obama's "Yes, But" strategy is working. My provisional assessment: not as well as I might have hoped.

Recall that Obama's foreign policy efforts of the past 16 months can be summarized as one long effort to neutralize the talking points of countries unwilling to partner more vigorously with the United States on urgent international security priorities (like countering the Iranian regime's nuclear weapons program). 

Despite a determined and focused effort at forging effective multilateralism, the Bush administration enjoyed only mixed success on the thorniest problems. The Obama team came in believing that more could have been achieved if the United States had made more concessions up front to address the talking points of complaints/excuses would-be partners offered as rationalizations for not doing more. Yes, Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon is a problem, but what about Israel's? The Bush administration tended to view these talking points skeptically as a distraction and was not willing to pay much of a price in order to buy a rhetorical marker to offer in rebuttal. By contrast, the Obama Administration embraced them and devoted themselves to buying markers to deploy in response: Yes, but we have gone further than any other U.S. administration effort to publicly delegitimize the nuclear program of our ally Israel, so what about it, why don't you do more to help us on Iran?


The just completed NPT Review conference was in some sense the ultimate benchmark for assessing the "Yes, But" strategy.  The last review conference in 2005 collapsed in mutual recriminations with states unwilling to accept the Bush administration's prioritization of nonproliferation threats and responses. The Obama administration was determined to do better and by one measure they did: instead of diplomats storming out of the room, the 2010 NPT Review conference produced a document the states were willing to sign.

This allowed the administration to boast, "We've got the NPT back on track." But in exchange for this, the United States endorsed an action plan that contains provisions Obama's National Security Advisor Jim Jones has characterized as "deplorable." As the Post describes it: "The United States got few of the specific goals it sought at the conference, such as penalties for nations that secretly develop nuclear weapons, then quit the pact (think North Korea). Language calling on countries to allow tougher nuclear inspections was greatly watered down."

It is an action plan that singles out Israel by name for criticism but does not criticize Iran. The hypocrisy in the action plan was so great that apparently many countries were surprised when Obama's negotiators swallowed it. Obama's surprise last-minute concession temporarily wrong-footed the Iranian delegation.

I do not know whether this compromise is the best that could have been negotiated in 2010.  I do suspect, however, that something like it was achievable in 2005 -- meaning that if the Bush Administration had been willing to sign a "deplorable" compromise it could have done so in 2005.  If I am right about that, then perhaps the "Yes, But" strategy failed. As the Post story put it:

"Still, U.S. officials appeared frustrated that the Obama administration did not get more credit for its record. It has signed a new arms-reduction treaty with Russia, hosted a 47-nation summit on nuclear security and lessened the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy.

"The disarmament stuff Obama did, they just pocketed," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. Non-nuclear countries, he said, "didn't give anything back.""

The "Yes, But" strategy was supposed to elicit better cooperation and more effective multilateralism -- what Obama's NSS has called "An international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges." This benchmark would be met if the preliminary concessions sealed deals at lower prices. But if even after all the preliminary concessions our would-be partners still demand top dollar for their grudging acquiescence, it is hard to see what the "Yes, But" strategy won us.

It may even be worse than that. The furor over Israel's botched raid on the ship trying to run the Gaza blockade suggests that the international demand for anti-Israel concessions from the Obama administration will only intensify. Obama has gone further than any other recent president to meet such international demands but so far he has very little to show for it. Will he double down on this approach and support international censure of Israel? And if he does, will that break the diplomatic logjam or only whet the international appetite for more anti-Israeli moves?

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

America's immigration dilemma -- Obama hasn't done his homework and it shows

If President Obama wants to solve America's immigration dilemma, he should avoid mixed messages. On May 19, he naively sided with visiting Mexican President Felipe Calderón who complained that Arizona's new immigration control law could lead to racial profiling. This last week, he ordered 1,200 National Guard troops to the southwest border and requested an additional $500 million from Congress to step up border enforcement.

While his words may have pleased undocumented migrants (a potential constituency) and immigration lawyers, his deeds seemed too much like bait for Republican votes on upcoming reform legislation. In both cases, he forgot to do his homework. 

For starters, he was too quick to criticize the Arizona law. It hardly differs from federal statute that penalizes illegal entry, or a 2007 Prince William County, Virginia ordinance that allows police to check the immigration status of detainees. As amended, the Prince William law ensured that the status of all detainees would be reviewed, not just those who looked like migrants. Fears of profiling abated. With similar tweaking, worries over the Arizona law are likely to recede. 

Obama also backed up his Mexican counterpart without knowing the history behind his remarks. President Calderón (an otherwise fine leader and good friend of the United States) carps at our immigration policies to satisfy Mexican voters -- including entrenched elites who resist land tenure and market reforms that would end monopolies and expand jobs at home. His predecessor Vicente Fox felt compelled to do so and now it seems to have become a ritual.

As for deeds, sending soldiers to the border is a stop-gap measure. The Bush administration deployed 6,000 National Guardsmen in Operation Jump Start only while it was boosting numbers in the U.S. Border Patrol. With that pretty much completed in 2008, what has changed that makes it necessary to call out the troops again? If really needed, 1,200 wouldn't be much help. And as a purely symbolic gesture, unnecessarily remilitarizing the boundary makes the United States look xenophobic.

Rather than cater to constituencies or flail in haste, the Obama administration might do well to look at the big picture -- and then propose a solution that matches rhetoric to reality consistent with American values and national interests. Consider the following: 

Despite our recession, the United States still attracts migrants from nearby Mexico and Central America as well as the rest of the developing world. Most seek employment, safety, and social mobility lacking in their own societies.Drug and human smugglers tag along for the ride. So in our diplomacy toward source countries, wouldn't it make sense to vigorously promote deeper economic reforms, stronger rule of law, and fair commercial codes that make it easier to start small businesses-measures that would reduce incentives to migrate?

Our procedures for obtaining U.S. work visas are excessively bureaucratic and regarded as rarely productive. Such perceptions drive migrants to sneak across the border, feeding a cutthroat smuggling industry, and stay to avoid another perilous trip. Why not streamline applications for temporary visas and make them portable from employer to employer so more of the migrant population can be legal and visible to authorities? Much of this can be done through regulatory changes. Workplace enforcement might be less painful if visiting labor could come and go as it wished legally and out in the open. 

By securing only part of the U.S.-Mexican boundary with fences, we have shifted more illegal crossings to where there are gaps.  And at that, human smugglers, drug traffickers, and gang members still use tunnels, ultralight planes, and blowtorches to defeat the fence. Why can't intelligence, surveillance, and apprehension be multi-dimensional, inconspicuous, and unpredictable in ways that fences and soldiers in Army humvees cannot be?  Finally, shouldn't jurisdictions from Panama to Canada be on one page concerning migration?  Mexico and the United States aren't even in the same book. 

Achieving reforms that will satisfy these quandaries will be no small feat. Americans are divided between those who would rather keep most foreigners out, those who want to open floodgates to let cheap labor in, and those who would simply like a little law and order on our southwest border. The divisions don't conveniently run along party lines or permit easy legislative agreement. 

So far, pandering to interest groups and pursuing half solutions hasn't done much for the White House except attract criticism. A better approach would be to start with the basics -- a studied understanding of global demographics, past measures and their effects, current legislation, and resources. Then the Obama policy team could lay out a very general set of objectives and end-state visions. Once Congress and a majority of citizens buy into them, specific reforms to improve conditions outside our borders, bring foreign job seekers out into the open, and strengthen border controls can help achieve meaningful progress.

Stephen Johnson was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2007 to 2009.