Shadow Government

Team Obama doubles down on an oddly incoherent critique of Romney

Like most foreign policy specialists, I have generally welcomed the way the presidential campaigns have begun to focus more on national security. Even if this election will be decided on economic matters or on base-turnout machines, it still is important for the campaigns to debate foreign policy. In that regard, Romney's speech yesterday at VMI was timely -- I would say, overdue.

Romney's speech was sound and sensible. One could quibble here or there -- a fair-minded Obama supporter can ask what more can Romney do than Obama has done to try to get the NATO allies to honor their defense budget commitments -- but as these sorts of speeches go, it was careful and precise. It didn't answer every question someone might have for the Governor, but it laid down some important markers.

In fact, it was so sensible that it made the Obama campaign's response -- or rather, "presponse," since they released it before the speech was given -- look rather nonsensical by comparison. The memo was written by two top Obama surrogates, former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl. I have great respect for both of them, but I having a hard time reconciling the various contradictions in their critique.

On the one hand, they try to dismiss Romney as extreme and ideological, to the right of President Bush. On the other hand, in the very next paragraph, they try to dismiss Romney as merely echoing Obama's own policies. Is Obama extreme and ideological and to the right of President Bush?

They try to dismiss Romney as vague and lacking in specifics on he would do in the next four years.  But has there ever been an incumbent more reluctant to offer specifics about what he would do with a second term than President Obama? Is there anyone who can say with confidence how Obama intends to handle relations with China or with Russia going forward? Does anyone know what is the significance of Obama's promise to Medvedev to show Russia more "flexibility" after the election?  Has Obama outlined a coherent strategy for how to deal with Syria? Or what he will do if the current sanctions do not convince Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions? 

Given how dramatically the administration has retreated on Afghanistan from its "war of necessity" pose of 2009 to its "Afghan good enough" pose of today, does anyone really know what sort of commitment a second term Obama would honor in 2014 when the mission is scheduled to transition to a new phase?

These are difficult issues to debate. I had a chance to discuss them briefly with Flournoy on PBS New Hour last night and I am not sure I made my points as effectively as I should have. Of course there is some similarity between what Obama and Romney are proposing now on Syria or Iran. Obama's approach has backed us into a corner and there are only so many ways out of a corner. 

Moreover, Obama's approach on both countries has evolved significantly in the direction of policies Romney has consistently supported for a long time. On Iran, the administration shifted from an unconditional bilateral talks approach of 2009 -- an approach they stuck with for far too long and which caused them to squander the opportunities of the Green Revolution and the Fordow surprise -- and only ramped up the pressure track after the Europeans and the U.S. Congress led the way. On Syria, Team Obama started off calling Assad a reformer and shifted to supporting the insurgents much later. 

And on Iraq, there is no question that Flournoy worked diligently to secure a follow-on agreement and that Maliki was reluctant to compromise, as she claimed. But there is also no question that Flournoy did not get the help she needed from the White House and that all of the mistakes I listed (and more I could have but didn't) undermined the negotiations.

It is hard in a few minutes to get to the nub of these issues, but that is where the campaign debate should go. 

I have great sympathy for Flournoy and Kahl. They are both smart and knowledgeable and they have served the country honorably. But in their campaign surrogate role they are operating under extreme constraints and may not be free to speak candidly about Obama's record. They know better than anyone else the long list of missed opportunities and implementation errors that has dogged President Obama's Middle East strategy since the very beginning. They were insightful in identifying similar problems in the Bush era. If they applied to Obama the kind of sharp-eyed standards they applied when they were on the opposition bench, the results would be a withering critique of the last four years.  

Perhaps the Obama Team conducts that kind of sober self-assessment in off-the-record sessions. Let's hope so, because if they get the chance to govern for another four years, it would not be good for U.S. foreign policy if they governed according to the standards of their campaign memos.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Obama defends, then changes, Cuba policy

The Obama campaign recently took umbrage with criticisms of the president's Cuba policy by Paul Ryan in a campaign swing through Miami, the heart of the Cuban exile community. Ryan charged that the policy amounted to appeasement of the Castro regime, to which the campaign responded that Obama "has repeatedly renewed the trade embargo with Cuba, pressured the Castro regime to give its people more of a say in their own future, and supported democracy movements on the island."

Yet even as the campaign defended the president's policy, administration officials were furiously rewriting the rules of one of the president's signature Cuba initiatives that had gone scandalously awry.

Last year, the Obama administration significantly liberalized Bush-era restrictions on private travel to Cuba that were designed to deny hard currency transfers to the Stalinist dictatorship. The thinking behind the change was that "purposeful" or "people-to-people" travel can build relationships between Americans and Cubans and empower the latter to think and act as individuals rather than as vassals of the state.

Well, as it happens, the initiative came to serve no purpose other than to become a propaganda vehicle for the Castro regime with the complicity of fellow-traveling U.S. tour operators. Far from promoting contact with real Cubans, the trip itineraries revealed close collaboration with the Castro regime and featured interactions only with Cubans approved by the regime -- hapless minions who could only be counted on to spout the party line that all of poor, little Cuba's problems are caused by the big, mean old United States.

And where the indoctrination ended, it was rounded-out by frivolous tourist activities -- rum, salsa, Hemingway! -- that are carefully walled off from interaction with ordinary Cuban citizens. 

In fact, the abuses became so flagrant that Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) held up the nomination of a senior State Department official until the administration agreed to review a program that had egregiously gone off track.

Typical of the purposeless results is a recent report in which a professor at the University of Iowa gushed about an essay written by a student after meeting with "an American fugitive who had escaped the country and taken asylum in Cuba." That would likely be either Joanne Chesimard or Charlie Hill, two radicals wanted by U.S. authorities for the murders of U.S. law enforcement officials in the 1970s.

Then there is the Duke University Alumni Association promoting an "Art & Architecture Tour of Havana" next month. Not only is the trip wholly choreographed by the Castro regime, but the group is only allowed to meet with regime-approved artists. But the key line in their brochure is this: "The arts have long presented Cubans with an opportunity to cautiously express their views on society." 

Such an assertion is patently false and only demonstrates the dishonest degree trip organizers will go to pretend they are serving a higher cause in traveling to Cuba -- and receive their coveted license to travel. And in it they provide the most salient lesson of all: that engagement with totalitarian regimes rarely changes them, but it does change us. It forces people to obfuscate their language, to compromise their values, and to accept unjust and immoral situations and arrangements they wouldn't tolerate anywhere else in the world.

It remains to be seen if the Obama administration will restore some sanity to its liberalized travel regime to Cuba by truly making it purposeful and people-to-people. They have an opportunity to act to demonstrate they really are working to help the Cuban people have more of a say in their own future and to support democracy movements on the island. Because the status quo is having the exact opposite effect: by further enabling the Castro brothers to suffocate the Cuban people's legitimate aspirations for freedom and a better future.