Shadow Government

The President, the Tea Party, and National Security

America's foreign relations appear to have hit a perfect storm. The ongoing Snowden-NSA scandal, which has resulted in the near-alienation of Europe's most powerful leader, the hitherto staunchly pro-American Angela Merkel, as well as anger in Brazil, Mexico, and several other countries, has overlapped with the Tea Party-inspired partial government shutdown and the angst generated in the run-up to the vote on the national debt. Just as everyone thought Washington's credibility could not get much lower after the series of administration about-faces in responding to Assad's use of chemical weapons, it has managed to sink further still.

President Obama and his administration are no innocents in this matter. They have completely mishandled the NSA eavesdropping affair, refusing to acknowledge reality in the face of overwhelming Snowden-leaked evidence, and thereby compounded European and Latin American anger. Moreover, the President's stubborn refusal to negotiate with Capitol Hill Republicans, despite his constant refrain about the need for comity in Washington, certainly contributed to the government closure.

That said, the Tea Party's Congressional adherents have even more to answer for. By pressing their quixotic attempt to force the President's hand on Obamacare, they conveyed an image of an America that cannot get its house in order, and that has little concern about the international ramifications of its absurd proclivity to lurch from crisis to crisis every few months.

American reliability was already questionable in the aftermath of its support for the Morsy government in Egypt in the face of increasing popular hostility (supposedly on the grounds that the Muslim Brotherhood's election victory needed to be respected) in contrast to its desertion of Hosni Mubarak (who also held office by virtue of an election) when the people turned against him. Its treatment of Muammar al-Qaddafi, who, after all, had reached a solemn agreement with the United States to terminate his nuclear weapons program, and appears to have adhered to that agreement, likewise projected an image of perfide Americana. And  Obama's tortured reaction to Assad's use of chemical weapons obliterated the credibility of his "red lines" that were meant to deter the Syrian leader.

The Congressional supporters of the Tea Party have compounded the damage to the image of American reliability, however. Foreign observers think the United States has lost its collective mind; allies are looking elsewhere for security support; friends are reconsidering how tightly they wish to be aligned with America; adversaries are convincing themselves that Washington is withdrawing from the world, allowing them to wreak havoc on the international scene. The Tea Party's adherents simply are ignorant of the ramifications of their behavior. They do not realize that America's economic security, indeed its secure way of life, is intimately linked to a stable international order, which itself requires that Washington maintain and enhance its partnerships with like-minded governments.  They are dragging America to a new international low, from which recovery may be very long in coming. 

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Shadow Government

Bringing 'Smart Power' Back to U.S. Foreign Policy

Former State Department official Christian Whiton's book Smart Power is a needed and useful book on "the missing middle" in American foreign policy. Relying on history as well as the tried and true understanding of the term diplomacy before it was neutered by time-servers, place-seekers and the McGovernite left, Whiton outlines an approach that urges policymakers to adopt tactics that fall between the extremes of simply dialoging and a shooting war. Importantly, he argues persuasively that smart power is not only a matter of tactics that are part of a well-laid strategy; it is also a mindset about defending one's country and its interests everywhere and at all times. Personally, I think the book is a good read for those who are desperately in need of a little bit of self-reflection on whether or not they are cut out for foreign policy officialdom.

Whiton begins the book by relaying stories about the use of tactics short of U.S. military force but much more involved than simply issuing démarches and convening conferences during the early years of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan and his allies abroad and in the United States (Democrats and Republicans) were masterful at bringing down the communist system, but the policy foundations of U.S. resistance to Soviet aggression were set long before by Truman and Eisenhower when we fought in various ways to keep Western Europe free. The Soviets knew we would resist and that we would not just talk but act to support our allies and the underground freedom fighters in whatever way was necessary to ensure their success--including supplying bags of cash and inventing ways to broadcast real news into closed states, all in an effort to harm the Soviets' ability to capture nations. Communist leaders knew how the U.S. defined its interests and they experienced measured pain in response to their efforts to deny us the fulfillment of our goals.

Whiton contrasts this success story by showing how things are different now that we've had thirty years of an academic-inspired approach that assumes that the United Nations and international lawyering will somehow cause everyone to work out differences and establish peace. The problem with this approach is that it most obviously does not work very often and so the only thing left in the basket of tools is to drone or bomb or invade. Whiton argues that we have done the latter far too often, or our officials on the left and the right have argued for that, when smart power thinking and tactics would have been the wiser choice.

Mining his time in the Bush '43 State Department for examples of missed opportunities, Whiton tells of poor judgment and careerist-thinking (both among political appointees and FSOs) that left the U.S. with only two options: convene a conference or bomb someone. Missing were a thorough examination of who are real enemies are, our interests over time, the setting of goals (short, mid-range and long-term), and the choosing of appropriate tactics to achieve each.

It is worth noting that smart power is not "soft power" because the latter almost never means the use of force in any form. Whiton argues that there are various forms of persuasion as well as force short of war that should be available to policymakers to complement the use of whatever Foggy Bottom means by "soft power."

Whiton and I served together and I experienced some of what he laments firsthand in my work on the Freedom Agenda. I believe President George W. Bush had the right mindset and knew U.S. interests well, but especially in the second term he was ill-served at times by some political appointees who were captured by the career officials who wanted a return to the old system of démarche and convene. This is especially unfortunate given the development of the Freedom Agenda and all the good theory and practice (that drew on successful experiences of the Cold War) that it entailed. We were stymied more than once and the president was in turn frustrated by the failure to achieve his goals. I am not as critical of neoconservatives as is Whiton because I think he and most of them share not only the same goals but also a similar approach and mindset. The few whom he considers trigger-happy do not discredit the whole lot. Besides, those too quick to bomb have been moved by frustration at the return of the lawyering and conferencing approach to foreign policy. If there were more tools to choose from-smart power tools-they would readily embrace them. As to Whiton's judgment of the (Ron) Paulist isolationsists, I share his views wholly.

Whiton's book is useful in reminding us that embracing smart power not only has facts and logic on its side, it has a successful track record borne out by history. But it is worth stressing once more: if policymakers in both the executive and legislative branches do not have the right mindset and attitude about the role and interests of the United States in the world, they will never move beyond the current approach practiced with vigor by the Obama administration. They will be reluctant to do anything but what is considered the polite and genteel approach to foreign policy which his to démarche and convene. And then when that fails, as it so often does, they will be moved to use exceedingly large amounts of force with all the political, diplomatic and collateral damage that comes with it. The public will react negatively and our alliances will be harmed. It's time to get smart again.

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