Shadow Government

3 national security developments that you should worry about

Three items caught my eye as I plowed through back-reading (the "burden" of a week of vacation followed by a major international trip):

  • The Soft Power Asset Bubble Bursting: A recent poll by the Arab American Institute confirms what I had suspected for a long time: that the rapid inflation in soft power assets occasioned by the election of President Obama and his focused effort during his first year to restore American popularity only a generated short-term boost in popularity. It was built on an unsustainable bubble of enthusiasm for the election of an "anti-Bush" who promised to zig wherever Bush had zagged. Of course, Obama could not sustain that level of policy reversal while also meeting minimum American national security requirements. Now, several years into it, the Arab publics at least are expressing disapproval ratings that eclipse, in some ways, what they expressed in the Bush era.
  • A Belated Focus on the Need for a Coherent Long-term Strategy in Iraq: President Obama originally won plaudits from the opposition bench for the way that he jettisoned his 2008 campaign rhetoric and instead implemented a more responsible, and slower draw-down in Iraq -- essentially following the short-term roadmap negotiated at the end of the Bush Administration. However, anyone with experience in Iraq policy understood that that playbook was designed with an implicit promise to renegotiate a longer-term strategic framework with Iraq, one that would allow for a non-trivial contingent of U.S. ground troops to serve as a stabilizer and regional deterrent (not unlike the function U.S. troops played in Europe and East Asia after World War II and the Korean War). The 2008 Status of Forces Agreement did not allow for that because Prime Minister Maliki had made it clear he thought he couldn't sell that to his electorate in 2008 -- but he made it just as clear that he would like there to be some new arrangement in place well-before the 2011 deadline. For a while now, outsiders have worried that the Obama administration has been a wee bit triumphalistic about "ending" the war in Iraq and perhaps not pursuing a more robust long-term strategy with sufficient vigor. Apparently, the Obama administration is coming to realize this, albeit belatedly. (Belatedly appears to be a pattern, as my Shadow Government partner-in-crime Will Inboden has pointed out). The things Team Obama is doing on Iraq now, down even to the personnel moves -- bringing back former Iraq-policy troubleshooter Brett McGurk is a principled and responsible step -- merits bipartisan support, but it is coming so late in the game (and with so little personal investment from the president) that one worries whether it will be too late to lock in the full measure of opportunity that the surge strategy provided. It still does not look like Iraq will sink to the abysmal trajectory it was on in 2006, but the rosier scenario that seemed possible in 2008 may be slipping from our grasp.
  • A Worrisome Absence of Phase IV Planning on Libya: The Bush administration's Phase IV planning on Iraq -- i.e. the plans for what to do after the near-term military objective of regime change was accomplished -- were not adequate to the task. They were built on optimistic assumptions about what indigenous forces could do in the realm of security and governance, and there was not sufficient attention paid to developing contingency plans B, C, and beyond based on gloomier (and, as it happened, more realistic) assumptions. The Bush administration got a great deal of criticism about the war planning as a result, and much of it was deserved. Now some of the very people who leveled the bombast at the Bush administration are running their own war in Libya and, according to this recent report, seem to be on track to be hoisted with their own petard. As the reporter caustically observed, if the administration (or another co-belligerant) has done robust planning about how to handle a post-Qaddafi Libya "they've been awfully quiet about it." I concede that the administration has sometimes shown that they can develop a complex contingency plan without leaking, but as difficult as the raid against Bin Laden was operationally, in strategic terms it was much more narrowly drawn than the kind of plans needed for handling a post-Qaddafi Libya. Thus, I suspect the Libya planning operation is more like the Afghanistan one, about which the Obama administration has leaked with as much loquacity as any of its predecessors. In other words, if we are not hearing of it, there is a good chance it is not happening -- especially since Obama has promised not to have U.S. ground troops involved, which is rather like begging the very question of planning. Perhaps the Obama administration will be able to stand idly by if Libya sinks into a chaos that threatens a humanitarian disaster. However, the very decision to join the NATO operation against Qaddafi demonstrated that the administration concluded that they couldn't stand idly by in the past, after initially promising the same sort of "not our problem" posture. If Libya luck is much better than Iraq luck, then the current level of planning may suffice. But if not, the failure to grasp and plan for the nettle now could increase the pain later.

The 2012 election will likely be primarily driven by domestic political concerns, especially the economy. But what these developments mean collectively is that many of the foreign policy-related soundbites of the 2008 campaign will ring awfully hollow this time around -- and some that worked as attack lines by Obama may even sound more applicable as attack lines against him.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Shadow Government

On Libya, losing time, and listening for divine footsteps

On Friday the Obama administration at last announced that the United States will now recognize the Transitional National Council as the legitimate government of Libya. This was the right thing to do. It helps make available an estimated $30 billion in frozen assets for the Libyan rebels, and will help bolster international support for the TNC and further isolate the outlaw Qaddafi. Many questions remain on implementation, as Josh Rogin notes, but even these implementation issues illustrate how diplomatic recognition bears important substance as well as symbolism.

While recognition was a welcome move, it was also much belated. The United States could have done it as long as four months ago when France first led the way, when recognition arguably would have had more impact in decisively shifting momentum against Qaddafi. Instead of leading the multinational coalition, the United States is once again following (insert the obligatory "leading from behind" crack here). Now, as this Wall Street Journal editorial points out, the United States is the 27th nation to recognize the Libyan rebels, in the footsteps of countries such as Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Italy, Australia, and Spain. Even Luxembourg did it ahead of us.

Wise and effective statecraft depends much on developing the right policies. But statecraft also depends on a less appreciated factor, and that is timing. It is not always enough to do the right thing, but to do the right thing at the right time. In other words, in foreign policy it is not just what you do, but when you do it.

Here a continuing puzzle of this Administration is its sense of timing. Previously as a political candidate, Obama displayed an appreciation for timing that was both acute and artful. He discerned the political gestalt, and capitalized on it in a way that catapulted an otherwise previously obscure law professor and state legislator first into the U.S. Senate and then almost immediately into the White House.

Yet somewhere along the way, in the transition from campaigning to governing, the Obama White House forgot to sync its clock. This was manifest in domestic and economic policy with the mistaken investment of political capital in the health care bill rather than a jobs agenda. On foreign policy, the administration's deficiencies have been most pronounced as miscast timing. In fact, as in the case of Libya, the Administration often arrives at a sound policy -- yet only when it is too late to be a game-changer. So also with Iran, when the White House sat passively on the sidelines during the 2009 Green Movement protests, only to belatedly offer public presidential support for the Iranian reformers two years later and after the regime had squelched the leading dissidents. Or Syria, where the administration stuck dogmatically to its public posture of hope that Assad would reform, while his henchman locked up, tortured, and killed the opposition.

Poor timing is not just a matter of misreading history and arriving late, but it can also mean mistaken sequencing and taking certain steps too soon. For example, many of the Administration's much-hyped "outreach" efforts in its first year to regimes like Iran, China, Cuba, Venezuela, and Burma, were flawed diplomatic gestures in part because they came before the White House had first taken needful steps such as reassuring U.S. allies, and asserting American strength and resolve towards the regimes in question. Taking those steps first would have generated more respect for the White House's gestures and created more fruitful conditions for eventual diplomatic outreach. Or consider the administration's clumsy treatment of Israel. Whatever one may think of the White House's various pressure gambits with the Israeli government -- such as publicly demanding a settlement freeze, or unilaterally calling for the 1967 borders framework as a precondition for negotiations -- a big reason why these steps failed (besides their dubious merit) is because they came before the White House had established a framework of trust with the Israeli leadership and made clear its firm commitment to Israel's security. Not to mention the lack of a Palestinian leadership able and willing to deliver as a negotiating partner. Timing problems can also come from listening to the wrong clock, as seems to be the case with the administration's recent decision-making on Afghanistan, shaped more by the 2012 electoral timetable rather than the military's assessment of the security clock.

None of this is easy. Reading time and the course of history is notoriously elusive, but it is essential to the best statecraft. Bismarck famously observed, "a statesman cannot create anything himself. He must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of His garment." As the White House wrestles with a full agenda of vexing challenges, perhaps it should start listening a little harder for divine footsteps.