Shadow Government

Fool me once ...

On the eve of the election, Dan Drezner offered a wonderfully optimistic vision of foreign economic policy to come. He backed the view that we would see the issue move to the forefront and progress made, whatever the outcome of the vote. He catalogued the trade and investment deals that are currently mid-negotiation and concluded that success was likely:

"All of these deals are being negotiated by the Obama administration, so I think we can assume that the president has signed off on them ... Furthermore, regardless of who wins Congress, these are the kinds of deals that still fall under that shrinking category of 'doable in a reasonably bipartisan fashion.'"

I found it all very sweet. Dan was writing from Paris. Like Proust's madeleine, his hopeful predictions stirred up memories of 2008 and of 2010 -- more innocent times gone by, when my Democratic friends held great hope on the international economic front. In 2008, post-election, they would explain that President-elect Obama had multilateralism in his blood and that his recalcitrance on trade agreements had just been an election tactic to win over the unions. Why, they explained, we'd probably see the pending free trade agreements (S. Korea, Colombia, Panama) passed in lame duck session.

Two years later, with those same agreements still pending, there were hopeful murmurings that President Obama, chastened by the 2010 midterm election losses, would triangulate, just as President Clinton had in 1994. He would seek out areas of bipartisan agreement with the Republicans. What area seemed more promising than advances on trade? Of course, the agreements did eventually pass, but only after a bitter partisan conflict on the Hill. All that was accomplished was the completion of the 2006-2007 trade agenda; the administration and its allies in Congress explained that it was 'premature' to talk about measures such as renewed Trade Promotion Authority (normally a prerequisite for passage of any serious agreement). There was no forward progress. The WTO talks were left to linger. The vaunted Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is actually a revived Bush administration project; participants hoping for a November 2011 conclusion saw the date come and go.

Thus, a recurrent disconnect between hope and experience. I was not going to be so churlish as to take issue with Dan's reveries, until I saw Shadow Government guru Will Inboden actually take them seriously last week. So duty calls.

Reasons for skepticism about trade negotiation progress in President Obama's second term:

-If, on a 10-point scale, the first term free trade challenges were a 'degree of difficulty' 2, then this term's challenges are an 8 or a 9. In the first term, to be called a free trader, the president just had to get a willing Congress to vote on three pre-packaged, already complete agreements. That took him 2.5 years and ended up in a bloody fight. Even so, it really just required a weekend's lobbying for a vote. Getting a TPP or a US-EU trade agreement would require sustained engagement, starting very soon, and the expenditure of substantial political capital. There are divisive, difficult issues such as intellectual property protection and the treatment of state-owned enterprises on the table in TPP; there's the question of agriculture with the EU. If the president and his team could barely handle the first term tasks, those of the second look technically much more daunting. It is difficult to list the issues on which the president has shown the kind of sustained political engagement that would be required (e.g. working to persuade reluctant groups like Pharma or farmers to live with an agreement they viewed as problematic). Perhaps health care is an example, though even then the president was criticized for tossing it to Congress and walking away while members fought.

-It may be useful to distinguish between President Obama's political cost/benefit of negotiating a trade and of concluding one. Negotiating a "21st century trade agreement" makes one look visionary and constructive. Everyone can imagine that the ultimate deal will be filled with the things they like and devoid of any deal breakers (even if all those doing the imagining have sharply conflicting visions). Concluding such a deal means not only resolving such conflicts, but also alienating President Obama's political base. The 2011 votes on the pending FTA's discredited the old notion that House Democrats were split in their views on trade; instead, they seemed relatively unified in opposition. I am not sure what evidence Dr. Drezner is reviewing that promises bipartisan support for upcoming trade agreements. Of course, President Obama might decide that he will largely pass his second term agenda with Republican support in the House, leaving Democrats to seethe, but if that it is his strategy, his early post-election statements have concealed it well. If, instead, President Obama is determined to pursue a partisan line, he needs his forces united, not divided. Nothing will split them more readily than a good trade fight. And all of this assumes that the president's reluctance to advance the trade agenda was politically instrumental, as opposed to a reflection of his true beliefs.

-Trade agreements take time. If the president is to get anything completed, he needs to start right away. TPP is nowhere near ready, despite years of talks; most of the hard, most controversial issues have been deferred. The president is surely aware that the window for second-term presidents to achieve things is narrow. Does he want to devote that time to trade liberalization? He has not seemed inclined even to attack the divisive issue of environmental change, something he seems to care significantly more about.

We can be grateful that the president has indulged in more protectionism than embracing futile tariffs on Chinese tires and endorsing the "Buy America" concept. The problem is that U.S. trading partners will not be infinitely patient in awaiting the conclusion of the deals under discussion. From a broader foreign policy perspective, the TPP is absolutely central to the administration's pivot to Asia. Europeans are eagerly backing the idea of an FTA as one of the few positive signals they might send to investors amidst the still-looming euro zone crisis. There will be serious foreign policy consequences if the president fools us thrice on support for trade.

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Shadow Government

Getting mad about Benghazi

I am finally mad about Benghazi.

I've been willing to cut the Obama administration a lot of slack because, as a former CIA analyst and NSC director, I've been in the exact situation they were in on the day of the attacks. Something dramatic happens -- an explosion or an assassination -- the higher-ups expect to know every detail instantaneously, and a mad scramble ensues to find any little scrap of information to satisfy the demand for data. In the madness, the typical standards for vetting information are bypassed. That's how policymakers end up running around for a day or two after a crisis reading -- and repeating -- inaccurate, incomplete, and contradictory information.

Even if there were a few reports from the intelligence community saying the attack was a terrorist attack, I am sure there were other reports saying it was a mob attack. Policymakers will inevitably choose to believe whatever piece of evidence confirms their preexisting conclusions and prejudices. The Obama administration, eager to continue the narrative that al Qaeda is on the verge of "strategic defeat" and that the "tide of war is receding," would naturally have chosen to believe the mob attack theory, especially if they got a few reports saying so. And once you make a judgment, it becomes extremely difficult to revise it in light of new information. While wrong, that's only human.

But former Director David Petraeus reportedly testified to Congress that the CIA's original talking points explicitly mentioned al Qaeda involvement in the attack but were changed by unknown officials to delete references to al Qaeda. If true, the administration's failure to acknowledge the attack as a terrorist strike is no longer an understandable cognitive failing; it is the blatant politicizing of intelligence. Someone changed Congressional testimony to sound more favorable to the Obama administration's preferred narrative.

To be clear, I think it is more likely that the person responsible is an official in the intelligence community than the White House or policy community. Talking points for an intelligence official briefing Congress would go through intelligence channels, probably through the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), not through the White House.

That does not lessen the charge of politicization. The intelligence community, ever sensitive to its precarious relationship to its consumers in the policy community, can sometimes censor itself for fear of offending a policymaker with bad news or with a judgment that policymakers could interpret as a criticism of policy. The fault lies with the intelligence community for caving in and showing no spine, but also with the policymakers for allowing or encouraging a culture of censorship and politicization.

This is exactly the same charge that Democrats launched against the Bush administration for the intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. A later Senate investigation found absolutely no evidence that the White House fabricated intelligence, but that didn't stop Democrats from accusing Bush and Cheney of pressuring the intelligence community and encouraging a culture of sloppy analysis by loudly repeating their preferred narrative.

If the CIA judged al Qaeda affiliates were involved in the Benghazi attack and some other official (probably in the ODNI) deleted the reference, it was likely because the official knew the Obama administration preferred the narrative that al Qaeda was nearing strategic defeat and the tide of war was receding.

The narrative is wrong, and we should allow for the other side to make its own judgments and get them wrong -- we make mistakes too. The troubling thing is that the Obama administration has apparently insisted on their narrative so much, so loudly, and so vociferously that analysts in the intelligence community no longer feel able to state simple facts that contradict the narrative. Apparently the White House is so inflexible about this position that simply stating a fact like "al Qaeda was involved in the Benghazi attack" would be enough for an analyst to feel that he would lose credibility with and access to the president.

Such intellectual inflexibility and dogmatism is dangerous in the White House. Policymakers should be ever watchful lest they fall prey to group think and bias confirmation. The bubble of power is so insular that the president and his advisors need to work consciously to get out of it and seek out dissenting opinions. That is part of how Bush was able to make the decision for the Iraq Surge against the collective advice of the Joint Chiefs, Congressional leaders, and most others. The Obama administration, apparently, hasn't learned this lesson yet.

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