Shadow Government

The Seoul positive outcome

From an otherwise tepid weekend of international economic summitry, the most striking development was the Obama administration's declaration that it intends to move forward with the Korea free trade agreement (FTA). President Obama announced that he wanted renegotiations completed by his visit to Seoul in November and that he would submit the agreement to Congress shortly thereafter.

Amidst faltering progress on global trade talks and discord over stimulus and deficit reduction at the global talks in Canada, it would be easy to miss the import of the Korea announcement. The Korea-United States (KORUS) FTA was completed in 2007 but President Bush could not persuade the Democratic-controlled Congress to put it to a vote. The Koreans passed the agreement long since, but it has lingered in U.S. legislative limbo under the Obama administration. The Obama team had characterized KORUS as unsatisfactory, citing shortcomings in barriers to auto trade and beef, but had been unwilling to present the Koreans with a list of necessary fixes. To do so would have been to imply that remedies would lead to passage.

This new move represents a sharp break with Obama administration trade policy to date, and arguably with the administration's approach to legislation more generally. Administration trade policy so far has been characterized by deliberate ambiguity and an avoidance of deadlines. The Obama administration joined the G-20 nations in calling for a conclusion to the WTO trade talks last year, but resisted deadlines like a ministerial review last March. It stated general support for mending and passing the pending FTAs with Colombia, Panama, and Korea, but never put forward a timeline. It called for "engagement" with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but left details vague and did not set a target end-date for those negotiations.

Obama strategists had their reasons. The president had convinced both trade skeptics and enthusiasts in his party that he stood firmly with them. Any bold trade move risked disillusioning one group or the other. When faced with an inescapable deadline on Chinese tire tariffs, the President chose to split the difference and apply tariffs at half the level recommended by the U.S. International Trade Commission. This didn't really satisfy anyone, but it was a good try.

With the commitment to conclude KORUS, President Obama steps away from this ambiguity. He will need to face down some powerful and skeptical voices in the House of Representatives. Ways and Means Chairman Sander Levin (D-MI) had this to say about KORUS passage:

[The current agreement] "does not effectively address the regulatory and tax barriers that have led to one-way trade and hurt our industrial sector as well as kept out our beef. Congress expects to be consulted actively in these negotiations, and the date targeted by the president can be met only if the outstanding issues are fully addressed with enforceable commitments."

Not exactly an enthusiastic statement of support. Furthermore, Korea is far less likely than smaller trade partners like Peru to accept U.S. demands wholesale. The existing agreement has already been politically sensitive in Korea and the Korean government has expressed reluctance about renegotiation.

This move, should the administration see it through, will also mark a break from the general legislative strategy of the Obama administration. On measures from stimulus to spending to health care to financial reform, the administration has stated broad objectives and then given Congress significant leeway to craft the specifics as it pleased. That approach will not work on a carefully-negotiated trade agreement. Nor will the administration be able to rely upon the traditional protection of negotiating rules which required Congress to give FTAs a timely up-or-down vote. That approach fell apart when Speaker Pelosi moved to block the Colombia FTA in April 2008.  The president will have to insist that Congress pass the agreement unchanged and see it through.

From an international relations standpoint, the timing of the pledge is understandable. The failure to move on KORUS was calling into question U.S. credibility on trade in general and U.S. standing in Asia in particular. It would have been exceedingly awkward to show up in Seoul for the November G-20 meeting with nothing to offer.

But from a domestic political standpoint, it is hard to see how the timing could be much worse. One of the awkward features of trade agreements is that there is a prolonged interval between the time politically sensitive concessions are first broached and the time when the issue is settled. By calling for submission some months after the November mid-term elections, the Obama administration may have hoped to avoid any political penalty, but politically powerful opponents of KORUS will be well aware of administration offers pre-election if the Korean deal is to conclude in November.

The looming KORUS battle raises a number of questions about the administration's political strategy. Is this a decision to override the concerns of skeptical House Democrats, thereby paving the way for Colombia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and more? Or will the administration try to split the difference, as with Chinese tires, and pass only the one agreement while leaving the others hanging?

The answers will say a great deal about the prospects for trade policy in the remainder of the president's term. If the administration sees this through, it may mark a welcome return to U.S. trade leadership. If political obstacles prove too much, it will be very hard to conceal the failure in light of this weekend's specific and public commitment.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

'A lack of fire in the belly,' concludes Pakistan on Obama's war strategy

"Pakistan is said to pursue a foothold in Afghanistan," reads today's headline. Breaking news? Old news, rather.

Nonetheless, the New York Times has done its readers a service by laying out clearly the danger the Pakistani military's intentions pose to the project of democratic state-building and security in Afghanistan. It has also reminded us, yet again, how President Obama's July 2011 date for the start of a U.S. troop drawdown has created a perverse incentive structure that encourages both the Afghan and Pakistani governments to hedge against the United States in this vital region. No matter how talented General David Petraeus proves to be commanding American and NATO forces, it is hard to see how our Afghan strategy can be successful absent a strategic reorientation by the Obama administration that creates a different calculus for leaders in Kabul and Rawalpindi (headquarters of the Pakistani armed forces) with regard to the Afghan endgame.

Pakistan's military intelligence establishment continues to define national security with reference to the weakness and pliability, rather than the strength, of its Afghan neighbor. There is both an external and an internal logic to this construction of national security.

Externally, Pakistan seeks "strategic depth" against India, whose influence and friendly relations with the government of President Hamid Karzai threaten the Pakistani nightmare of strategic encirclement. Moreover, the Pakistani security establishment's sponsorship of the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba is today what Pakistan's sponsorship of Kashmiri militants was in the 1980s and 1990s -- a strategic tool to target and weaken India through terrorist attacks while enabling Rawalpindi to claim plausible deniability. At the same time, Pakistan's close relationship with the forces of Sirajuddin Haqqani (an important al Qaeda ally) and the Afghan Taliban give it critical leverage in its dealings with Washington.  

Despite the billions of dollars of assistance the United States provides its South Asian ally, many members of Pakistan's strategic elite believe that, as a result of the influence Rawalpindi derives from its friendship with our enemies, the United States needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs the United States. In this view, if Pakistan severed its close links to selected militants, closed down their sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal regions, and fully endorsed the Western project in Afghanistan, Pakistani leaders might no longer enjoy the red-carpet treatment from Washington. Pakistan therefore derives strength in its dealings with America by pursuing differentiated strategic objectives rather than similar ones. This is a different conception of the notion of "ally" than applies to American relations with other key partners.

This reality, in turn, leads to the internal logic of Pakistani statecraft in Afghanistan. The military intelligence establishment's position at the core of Pakistani society and politics has been strengthened, not weakened, by Western intervention in Afghanistan over the past nine years (though the opposite would have been true had the West and our Afghan partners succeeded in building a functioning and accountable Afghan state that highlighted Pakistan's own political deficiencies). The war against al Qaeda and the Taliban made General Pervez Musharraf's military dictatorship appear indispensable to the United States. Following Pakistan's democratic transition (which Washington supported, though not soon enough) and the subsequent U.S. presidential succession, Obama forged a new Afghan strategy that has increasingly come to rely on Pakistan to deliver the Afghan Taliban (and perhaps also the militant networks run by Siraj Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) for an Afghan political settlement that would give these forces -- each currently allied in various ways with al Qaeda -- positions of power in a new Afghan constitutional settlement so that Western forces could come home.

This U.S. policy has further elevated the position of the Pakistani armed forces chief of staff and his corps commanders in Pakistani politics, as demonstrated by the way General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani openly coordinated the positions of Pakistan's civilian ministries before the last U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue. Moreover, Obama's declared exit strategy starting in July 2011 has more widely opened the playing field in Afghanistan to Pakistan's military and intelligence services. They are further empowered internally by the decisive influence they now derive, with Washington's consent, in determining the Afghan endgame in a way that "defeats" India and America and therefore "strengthens" Pakistan. These developments do not bode well for the future of either Pakistani or Afghan democracy.

Obama's flawed and halfhearted Afghan strategy has also created incentives for Karzai to look for new friends in a dangerous region -- leading to the Faustian bargain he risks making with Pakistan over political reconciliation that brings the Afghan Taliban into government without committing it to uphold the Afghan Constitution, and gives Rawalpindi a guiding hand in determining Afghanistan's future internal and external orientations. Karzai's recent firing of his interior minister and intelligence chief, both proponents of "hardening" Afghanistan against Pakistani influence, pleased Rawalpindi and worrisomely revealed a tendency in this direction. If American and allied forces are headed for the exits before Afghan security and political institutions are mature enough to hold the country together and shield it from predation by its powerful neighbors, Karzai justifiably sees cutting a deal with Pakistan as a preferable option to hanging from a lamppost -- as did President Najibullah some years after Soviet forces departed (though the parallel is imprecise since the Karzai government enjoys a genuine measure of popular legitimacy its predecessor did not).

The tragedy here is that the United States and its allies went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 to oust a Taliban government with links to al Qaeda and that was sponsored by Pakistan. A decade and thousands of lost allied and Afghan lives later, it is hard to believe that President Obama is really going to preside over a premature military drawdown leading to a political transition that restores a Taliban-dominated government, some of whose constituent parts have ties to al Qaeda, that is sponsored by Pakistan.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images