Taking the easier path to a worse place

President Obama said last night that "the path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place." That is risibly inaccurate on national security issues -- this administration has done the exact opposite: It has taken the easy path that leads to a worse place. In particular, President Obama:

  • wrote off Iraq rather than continue a glide path that was leading to the consolidation of our gains and the strengthening of representative government in Iraq. His insistence on an early end to combat operations and a timeline unconnected to political and military milestones (like the election and government formation) destabilized a fragile Iraq and led both it and us to a worse place: a Maliki power grab discrediting institutions, reinforcing sectarian lines that were giving way to cross-confessional cooperation, and encouraging Iraqi-Iranian collaboration.
  • under-resourced the war in Afghanistan, both in warfighters and in time to achieve our objectives, instead establishing an end date unconnected to conditions that caused Pakistan, the Karzai government, and other actors crucial to the success of our strategy to begin hedging against our abandonment of them.
  • abdicated his responsibility to produce budgets from a Senate his own party controls. He couldn't get a deal last summer to prevent the Budget Control Act from coming into effect, and now impotently calls for Congress to "come together and agree on a responsible plan that reduces the deficit and keeps our military strong," taking no responsibility at all for the role his choices have made in poisoning the legislative waters. He says "there's no reason those cuts should happen." No reason other than his threat to veto any changes to the Budget Control Act and unwillingness to work with the Congress to find a solution.
  • uses drones to kill bad guys by the hundred yet they continue to be minted in copious numbers because we have policies that alienate the very populace whose support we need to reduce the supply of violent extremists. It's amazing that John Kerry would think it appropriate in warming up the crowd to say "ask Osama bin Laden if he's better off now than he was four years ago!" Perhaps the administration's supporters should ask themselves whether their addiction to drone strikes is creating the conditions for more bin Ladens to emerge.

The most important national security problem facing our nation -- the crushing load of debt that will crowd out discretionary spending by our government -- was addressed in the context of cutting military spending. The president who has doubled our national debt in three years now claims "I will use the money we're no longer spending on war to pay down our debt and put more people back to work rebuilding roads and bridges and schools and runways, because after two wars that have cost us thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars, it's time to do some nation building right here at home." That is, defense is the bill payer for his domestic programs. He claimed "I'm still eager to reach an agreement based on the principles of my bipartisan debt commission," but he has taken no action at all to bring the Simpson-Bowles Commission's recommendations into effect -- they weren't in his budget, they weren't in his proposals during the debt limit negotiations last summer.

In the one area of foreign policy the president highlighted, trade policy, he shamelessly mischaracterized his record. The three agreements he has signed were negotiated by the Bush administration and stalled for three years before Obama signed them. And he still persists in characterizing trade as a zero sum activity -- we need to "export more products and outsource fewer jobs." Surely someone in the administration has read David Ricardo and can explain comparative advantage to the leader of the free world?

Governor Romney made both an ethical and a tactical error in omitting reference to the 90,000 Americans, 352,000 Afghans and 30,000 Allies fighting in Afghanistan in his acceptance speech. President Obama rightly capitalized on the mistake to speak touchingly about the compact we should have with the men and women who fight our wars. It burnished his image as an effective commander in chief. What the president and his supporters seem not to understand, though, and it plays to Romney's advantage, is that there is an actual difference between ending wars and winning them. The president keeps emphasizing he brought the troops home from Iraq and is bringing them home from Afghanistan, but he is silent on whether we achieved the objectives for which we fought.

The president threw in lots of cats and dogs, box checking stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, supporting Israel, reasserting our power across the Pacific. If only his policies supported those platitudes. The biggest howler in the speech, the place where the president's claims seemed at greatest variance with his record, was "from Burma to Libya to South Sudan, we have advanced the rights and dignity of all human beings, men and women; Christians and Muslims and Jews." Yet he continues to issue tepid platitudes while twenty thousand Syrians have been murdered by their government.

This is an administration that seems not to appreciate the difference between saying something and achieving it. They are hoping that killing Osama bin Laden will deflect attention from their policies that have made America more resented in crucial sections of the world than we were in the Bush administration, that view defense spending not in the context of threats and opportunities we face in the world but as a funding source for their domestic priorities, that consider trade in more mercantilist terms than do the Chinese, that end wars instead of winning them, and that shun responsibility to advance our values in the world.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The Obama team steps to the plate, swings, and ….well you decide….

When I first posted my challenge to Obama partisans to step up and concede at least a few honest-to-goodness mistakes by their champion, I didn't expect that the first Obama partisan to step to the plate would be FP's own Blake Hounshell.

Besides being the Grand Vizier of FP's Web site, Hounshell is a decent and thoughtful fellow who has contributed some first-rate dispatches from the frontlines of the Arab Awakening over the past couple of years. He is the kind of Democrat who at least will entertain the possibility that Republicans might have interesting things to contribute to the debate, hence his willingness to give intellectual and political diversity a few electrons on his site, viz Shadow Government.  For that, I am exceedingly grateful, but that doesn't mean I am going to give his post a free pass.  (At least, I don't intend to...since he is the one who decides whether my posts actually make it on the site, I may draft this devastating riposte and it may never see the light of day...)

Hounshell grades my critique and seems to be more favorable than I expect Jentleson and Kupchan will be. Still, I think he misses some important things so below I reprint his grades, with my grade appeals interspersed....

"1. Announcing an arbitrary withdrawal timeline along with Afghan surge. Dumb. Obama undercut his surge by declaring it would only be a temporary thing. The rationale here was twofold: reassure the left wing of the Democratic Party (and many others) that the president didn't want to stay in Afghanistan forever, and signal to Afghan President Hamid Karzai et al that they'd better get their acts together in a hurry. The first part of the strategy worked, in the sense that it took the war off the table domestically. The second part? Meh, not so much. Maybe the impending 2014 withdrawal deadline will focus some minds in the Afghan government, but there are precious few signs that it has done so to date.

Verdict: Point to Feaver, but just barely. Why? Because staying in landlocked, impoverished Afghanistan forever is a terrible idea that very few Americans support, which is why Romney has barely mentioned the war and didn't even say the name of the country during his convention speech."

Surely I deserve better than "barely." I win running away, because the choice is not the false one Hounshell paints: between (a) undermining the surge by announcing an arbitrary timeline or (b) "staying in landlocked, impoverished Afghanistan forever." There were other alternatives available to Obama, such as allowing the withdrawal timeline to be dictated by conditions on the ground or, if he wanted to leave regardless of conditions, simply not announcing that fact at the outset of the surge so as to give the surge the maximum chance at success. Undermining his own surge was a strategic blunder by Obama and the only way Hounshell can minimize the seriousness of it is by replacing my argument with a strawman.

"2. Failing to leverage the Green Revolution in Iran in June 2009 to ramp up more pressure then on the Iranian regime. Note here that Feaver is careful not to make the crazy, indefensible version of this charge: that Obama should have somehow embraced or helped the Green Movement overthrow the Iranian government. The Obama administration's assessment was that coming out loudly in favor of the protesters would have made it even easier for the regime to crush them, and many Iran analysts agree. It's worth noting here that the Green Movement was not actually about overthrowing the system, however (though its remnants may evolve in that more radical direction). It was about disputing the results of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election, which was the common denominator consensus of the movement's various different factions. The movement's putative leaders, Mir Hossain Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Muhammad Khatami, were careful not to call for an end to Iran's clerical system, and they never called for outside help as far as I can remember.

What about the case for ramping up more pressure on the regime? Well, that is exactly what Obama has done since then, getting the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese to sign up for tough sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. And, though arguably Obama has been pushed by Congress into enacting tougher unilateral sanctions than he wanted (or than many on the left thought were humane or wise), here we are.

Verdict: Unknowable, but I don't see much to Feaver's argument."

I don't see much in Hounshell's argument, but I do give him credit that at least he doesn't pretend that critics of Obama's handling of this episode were insisting that Obama invade Iran in June of 2009. However, he does repeat another common error, pretending that the critique hinges on the Green Movement inviting Western help or being anti-nuclear themselves.

The case for a squandered 2009 does not rest on hopes that the Green Movement would have begged for more sanctions or that a President McCain would have unleashed the 4thID in a made dash for Tehran. Rather, the squandered opportunities involve: an opportunity for the Obama Administration to get out of the bone-headed "unconditional bilateral talks" trap they set for themselves; and an opportunity to ramp up multilateral economic pressure years earlier than they did, thus simultaneously increasing the (small) chance that diplomacy might have succeeded and the (larger) chance that the program could be delayed on the right side of more defensible red-lines; and an opportunity to unambiguously align with Iranian society rather than with the mullahs.

Eventually, the Obama administration did follow the lead of Congress and the French and British in implementing tougher sanctions on Iran. But they did so after squandering two golden opportunities to ratchet up pressure in 2009: the Green Revolution and the September surprise announcement of the secret enrichment facility.

The extra year's worth of pressure might not have worked. Obama partisans can always retreat to the counterfactual that Obama could have handled the Iranian file perfectly and we would still end up with the same dead-end confrontation we are heading to now. But that is like saying, throwing the interception did not cost us the game. Maybe, but it is still a turnover.

3. Imposing new preconditions on Israel regarding building in Jerusalem. I suppose it all depends on how you feel about Israeli settlements -- excuse me, "housing developments." If you believe Israel should not be making it harder to reach a permanent agreement, as U.S. presidents have for several decades now, then Obama was just hewing to a longstanding bipartisan consensus. It was probably a tactical error for Obama to make settlements the focus of discussions if he wasn't prepared to stick to his guns. But look, folks: Neither side is willing to pay the price required for a lasting peace agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't believe in it (read his book -- he says so explicitly), and Mahmoud Abbas is too weak and wrongly thinks time is on the Palestinians' side.

Verdict: Meh. Basically, it's hard to argue that course X or course Y would have led to a better result, because the peace process is a joke and very few people believe in it anymore. Obama's real mistake was trying at all, given the circumstances and his fundamental gutlessness on this issue.

Give Hounshell credit for recognizing this was a tactical error. But since this is the clearest example of Obama promising and acting on his promise to do something very different from Bush on a foreign policy matter that he, Obama, claimed was of great strategic importance, and then having that whole matter fail spectacularly so that the president has to spend the next several years running in the opposite direction -- well, I think in that case it merits a bit more than "meh." (Interestingly, in my private interactions with Obama administration officials, this is one of the few errors they are willing to acknowledge.) He goes on to slam Obama as "gutless" -- I don't go that far, but it may be because I don't see much merit in the typical lefty critique of Obama as being too quick to compromise and not tough enough on "enemies" like Republicans in Congress or Israeli politicians.

4. The delay in ratifying the free trade pacts with South Korea and Colombia. So what? The South Korea FTA was fairly large, as these things go, but eventually it got done, as did Colombia. The opposition to the Colombia FTA was ridiculous given that it was fundamentally about ratifying a strong existing relationship and permanently opening the Colombian market to U.S. goods. But the Colombian market is just not very big.

Verdict: Weak sauce. I'm actually surprised that Feaver doesn't level a far more serious and defensible charge, which is that Obama just isn't a free trader at heart and has pandered to the left wing of his party by talking nonsense about outsourcing (when he really means offshoring) and failing to offer a Bill Clinton-like argument about why globalization is not only irreversible, but good for the United States. Obama has continued to explore things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and embraced Russia's long-overdue entry into the WTO. But in general, this isn't a big priority for his administration and Republicans have rightly criticized him for it.

But here's the problem: Free trade just isn't very popular among voters, and especially not in the Democratic Party in the post-2008 era. Even economists like Alan Blinder have started to have their doubts about offshoring. Does anyone believe Obama could have fundamentally moved the needle on this?

P.S.: Remember when the Bush adminstration succeeded in finishing the Doha Round? Me neither.

So here Hounshell's complaint is that my critique of Obama is too soft -- "weak sauce." Hounshell says Obama deserves even greater criticism for being an anti-free-trader. But then Hounshell gives Obama a pass from this, his, critique by saying that free trade is just not popular with voters so the Obama administration should not be criticized for failing to secure another grand round of multi-lateral trade negotiations. But I didn't criticize Obama for that. I criticized him for further politicizing trade and slow-rolling the two free-trade agreements (three if you count the smaller Panama FTA) that were handed to him on a silver platter. He didn't need to move voters, he just needed to work with a bipartisan coalition in Congress ready to act.

So where does that leave the score? I identified four Obama errors and, after reading Hounshell's discussion of them, I am more convinced than ever that they are obvious, unforced errors.

Does this mean that Obama is a terrible foreign policy president or that Romney is clearly the superior candidate on foreign policy? Both might be true, but I am not trying to argue either case right now. Rather, I am making the far more modest claim that there are a number of legitimate critiques of Obama's handling of foreign policy from the Republican perspective. Hounshell's interesting blogpost reminds us of how difficult it is for Obama partisans to concede that point.