Shadow Government

Setting foreign policy priorities

In the recent months leading up to the presidential election, the Obama administration sought fervently to keep foreign policy out of the headlines. This meant, among other things, deferring hard decisions on Iran and Syria, and diverting investigations into the Benghazi consulate attack. Now as President Obama begins drafting his second inaugural address and assembling his second term team, he and his administration are thinking about their legacy when they leave office four years from now. What kind of foreign policy accomplishments and what manner of world will they bequeath to the next president? This is the time to set priorities and take steps to address those challenges and accomplish those goals, and the strategic planners on the administration's national security team are (or should be) now undertaking those kinds of assessments.

Immediate decisions will need to be made on a number of headline issues, such as Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan (see this article by Max Boot on those topline challenges, and see Dan Twining's informed cautions on Afghanistan here), and everyone knows that the vexing U.S.-China relationship will preoccupy much presidential time over the next four years. Yet there are a number of other issues -- both challenges and opportunities -- that while far from the headlines should be near to the Obama administration's planning for the next four years. Here are five opportunities and needs:

  • Jihadism and the war of ideas. Four years ago, I expressed the hope that the new Obama administration would do a better job than we had in the Bush administration at building a strategic framework for engaging in the "war of ideas," specifically by building a multifaceted campaign and policy infrastructure to delegitimize the appeal of violent jihadism to would-be terrorists. Two years later, the onset of the "Arab Spring" seemed to offer a singular opportunity to further marginalize jihadist ideology, given that it caught extremist groups by surprise and put the lie to much of the jihadist grievance narrative. Now things look much worse. Jihadist groups adapted and have now capitalized on the Arab Awakenings to expand their recruiting and bases of support. The Obama administration's tactical focus on targeting Al Qaeda and affiliate leaders through drone strikes has not been accompanied by an effective counter-radicalization strategy. Now that the White House seems to be quietly (and wisely) abandoning its earlier intentions of declaring premature victory against Al Qaeda, the second term presents the opportunity and need to finally build a comprehensive strategy and system to fight and win the war of ideas.
  • North Korea. Now into the third generation of the vile Kim dictatorship, North Korea is the most vicious and unstable nuclear state on the planet. Like the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations before it, the Obama Administration has thus far pursued an erratic policy (or series of policies rather) consisting variously of benign neglect, containment, engagement and inducements, and sanctions and isolation. Yet the passing of time has not made the North Korean regime any less menacing. Considering its recent record of illegal nuclear and missile tests, attacks on South Korea, and nuclear proliferation to Syria, North Korea can be counted on to stir up further mischief -- or worse -- in the next four years. China remains the key hinge of leverage on the Kim regime, and the Obama administration should put North Korea on the top of its agenda items for the first meeting with new Chinese ruler Xi Jinping. Perhaps now is also an opportune time for renewed American pressure on North Korea, through stepped-up smart sanctions that target the gangster state's ill-gotten gains, and a multilateral human rights initiative that highlights the torment of the North Korean people.
  • Latin America. A truism in American diplomacy is how virtually every presidential administration takes office promising to elevate its focus on Latin America -- and virtually every administration then gets distracted by other priorities and other regions. Meanwhile the United States' influence in the region is diminished, even while our hemisphere is replete with all manner of opportunity and challenge, from dynamic emerging economies like Brazil to autocratic mischief-makers like Venezuela. I have no doubt that the Latin America specialists at the State Department and NSC have conceived a number of potential initiatives to deepen American engagement in the region; the question is will those memos get read by President Obama and the new Secretary of State?
  • India. One of the Obama administration's major first term mistakes was letting the U.S.-India relationship fall from dynamism into drift. As Dan Twining has described, a combination of blunders and neglect by the White House arrested the positive trajectory that had been established by the Bush administration -- and of course India's sclerotic politics bears a good deal of the blame as well. But now a renewed sense of purpose and political courage from the ruling Congress Party, exemplified by a revitalized government and a new basket of long overdue economic reforms, indicates that India may once again be a willing and able strategic partner. Will the Obama administration reciprocate?
  • Free trade. Here I'm tossing the White House a second-term softball (or maybe I'm just indulging in that cheap pundit trick of urging an administration to do what it is already doing). Yes, the Obama team's record on free trade in its first term was largely abysmal: no new free trade agreements initiated, and only grudging support and relitigation for the FTAs inherited from the Bush administration. But as Dan Drezner pointed out the other week, the Obama administration appears to be working on trade liberalization policy initiatives on a range of fronts. Among other things a second term brings freedom from catering to the protectionism of the Democratic Party's labor union base, and an opportunity to pursue a far-reaching trade liberalization agenda.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Return of the warlords

Former Afghan warlord Ismail Khan's recent call for the mujahedeen to rearm and reunite to defend Afghanistan against a post-2014 Taliban takeover is a reminder that the ongoing U.S. drawdown is changing the calculus not only of our adversaries but of our friends. Indeed, much of the behavior that undermines Afghan state-building (and therefore makes it harder for us to leave) -- the kleptocratic government, pervasive corruption, political infighting, and growing strains between President Karzai and Western capitals -- stems from the local belief that, with NATO forces soon to depart, our Afghan allies must seize every advantage they can. For Khan and other regional strongmen, this means arming and mobilizing their personal militias while the writ of Washington and Kabul still holds at least some sway in the provinces -- in preparation for a period when it may not.

Fans of the Game of Thrones novels have a useful guide to how regional strongmen able to raise their own armies rise to fill vacuums of power left by weak or illegitimate central authority. In the case of Afghanistan, a legitimate central government has lost much of its authority by virtue of its predatory relationship to its citizens and the sense that the private interests of top leaders trump the larger public interest. Sounds like a good reason for the U.S. to "leave Afghanistan to the Afghans," right? Not quite. The sad truth is that the U.S. decision to "end the war" and walk away is more likely than any other external policy to reignite it.

We have seen the evidence for this in the surge of Taliban violence against Afghan institutions since President Obama made explicit the timeline for most U.S. forces to depart. We have also seen regional powers move in to fill what they perceive as an impending vacuum of power following the U.S. retreat. India has signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan; Pakistan has refused even to pretend to help Washington reach a political settlement with the Taliban, instead doubling down on its own Afghan assets. And now we are seeing the Afghan warlords -- including men like Marshal Fahim, who since late 2001 have viewed service in the president's cabinet and the Afghan National Army as their preferred vehicle for influence and power -- position themselves outside those institutions to reprise their former roles as leaders of ethnic armies.

President Obama's reelection gives him a mandate to reduce the American military footprint in Afghanistan. He has neither a mandate nor an interest, however, in seeing Afghanistan fall apart through a precipitous U.S. retreat that does not leave behind a long-term, stabilizing force on Afghan soil. The military and political Balkanization of Afghanistan would endanger core U.S. interests -- in securing the legacy of over a decade of war and development, preventing terrorists from using Afghan territory to plot against America, forestalling regional conflict of the kind that Syria is now generating in the Middle East, and preventing the destabilization of nuclear-armed Pakistan. It would demonstrate to U.S. friends and enemies alike that America does not stand by its allies.

Afghanistan's disintegration after 2014 -- both through a fully fledged Taliban assault on the state and the decision of more strongmen like Ismail Khan to fight back using private rather than public means -- would negate a national security record under President Obama that Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden might wish to run on in 2016. It could further radicalize Arab extremists now vying to determine the future of their newly liberated societies, undercutting moderate forces in the Middle East and North Africa who seek long-term partnership with the West to promote democracy and development.

Nor would the Obama administration's ability to keep American enemies in Pakistan and elsewhere in the region off-balance through drone strikes remain viable should Afghanistan come apart in ways that precluded reliable U.S. basing rights there. For these many reasons, now that his reelection is secured and his governing horizon extends beyond 2014, President Obama may want to come up with a more sustainable policy on Afghanistan than the one on which he campaigned.