Shadow Government

Why Modi's Victory Means a New Chance for the U.S. to Make Good on the Asia Pivot

President Barack Obama's cramped vision for U.S. foreign policy resulted in the concept of a pivot to Asia. The term was introduced when the president's first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said that the United States was at a pivot point as troops were being withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. In an article for Foreign Policy, "America's Pacific Century," she called for "a sustained commitment to what I have called 'forward-deployed' diplomacy" in Asia. The term was soon replaced in common parlance, however, by "rebalancing," but both phrases spoke to this administration's defensive approach to foreign policy.

The approach is particularly inappropriate in Asia given the United States' historical alliance commitments: From its birth, the United States has been a naval power, and the geographic expansion of the American republic to the Pacific Ocean in the 19th Century made it a two-ocean naval power. Any president assuming office therefore has a historic mandate and responsibility to conduct U.S. foreign policy with attention to our friends and neighbors on the opposite sides of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Yet the idea that we somehow needed to pivot to Asia -- implying that U.S. responsibilities in Europe and the Middle East could be set aside while our attention turned elsewhere -- betrayed confusion in the White House rather than leadership.

The concerns that drove the administration to enunciate the pivot are not subject to dispute. As Clinton said almost three years ago, Asia "has become a key driver of global politics," "boasts almost half the world's population," and "includes many of the key engines of the global economy." Though Clinton's argument was in many ways a strong one, the action that followed unfortunately did not match the rhetoric.

The disconnection has created doubts in the region about U.S. will, with China evidently drawing the same conclusion as other bullies have in the past. We now see China reversing Mao's once-honored dictum not to seek hegemony, aggressively and unilaterally altering of the status quo in the South China Sea. This behavior should reinforce the Obama administration's commitment to Asia, whether couched in terms of a "rebalancing" or in terms consistent with America's historic role as a Pacific power. 

India has arguably been the least appreciated and attended to element of Obama's foreign policy in Asia. The president started off on a good foot by inviting then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for a state visit in November of 2009 but little developed subsequently. A certain amount of the decline can be attributed to India's attention to its domestic concerns, but by and large the Obama administration looked at India through the prism of Pakistan's historic grievances, rather then in the context of a broader global strategy. It is not too late to correct that as we now have a new prime minister, Narendra Modi, in New Delhi, whose commitment to democracy, economic openness, and free market competition do not diverge from his predecessor's while they parallel basic U.S. interests. They also happen to place India in opposition to the Chinese state-centered command system, which has enriched the few at the top but denied political voice to the many at the bottom. It will not be easy for the United States to take advantage of this change in India, but as part of making good on the pivot -- making good on the United States' historic commitments and responsibilities across the globe -- the effort must be made.

The challenge of renewing the U.S.-India relationship, which drew enormous momentum from President Bill Clinton's wildly popular visit in 2000 and was expanded under President George W. Bush, is two-sided. It is not just for the United States to approach India but also for India to approach the United States. Although Modi is understandably aggrieved at having his visa revoked some years ago by U.S. authorities, if he lets that past insult stand in the way of an expanded economy, it will not serve his administration well. India's recent modest growth can be aided by a reinvigorated relationship with the United States, not by splendid isolation.

The challenge for the Washington is adjusting to Modi's past as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 when violence targeting Muslims broke out on his watch. Thousands died and human rights activists pointed their finger at Modi behind the scenes. Modi reached out during his just-completed campaign and has pledged to be a prime minister for all Indians -- code words for representing Muslims every bit as much as Hindus. The fact that Modi grew up within and draws inspiration from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) need not alarm Washington's decision makers for at least two reasons. First, we worked closely with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who also was influenced by RSS thinking, and second, because the extreme versions of the RSS ideology represent a set of nationalist and cultural views that grew out of opposition to British colonialism in the early part of the 20th century. They continue to animate some Indian thinking but do not prohibit engagement on a wide range of common U.S.-India interests.

To paraphrase the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, if you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there. The arrival of Modi as prime minister of India provides an opportunity to identify what road we want to take in Asia. Expanding relations with India under Modi may be difficult, but there is little in foreign policy that comes easy. Narendra Modi is the new prime minister in New Delhi and China is busy seeking hegemony. The United States and India share concerns about Chinese assertiveness. What first steps can we take, therefore, to promote U.S.-India relations under the new administration in New Delhi?

Three actions could go a long way toward rebalancing our relations with India. First, we need to name an ambassador who captures India's and America's imagination. Ambassador Nancy Powell has left New Delhi, leaving Obama a chance to make a splash. This is the right time to signal the importance of India to U.S. foreign and strategic policy by naming a new ambassador with close ties to Obama.

Second, Obama should consider inviting Modi for a state visit, putting him on the same plateau as his predecessor, Manmohan Singh. This may be too big a step now, given the high human rights quotient in the current U.S. foreign policy team, namely Susan Rice and Samantha Power, who impressed candidate Obama with their strong human rights concerns and have worked their way to the senior most levels of his foreign policy team. Welcoming Modi to Washington may therefore be a bridge too far for them to cross. But in October at the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, Modi will likely step onto the international diplomatic stage and renew India's position as a global leader. At a minimum, the White House should begin to plan now for how to connect constructively and positively with the new Indian prime minister.

Third, Obama should propose a multinational diplomatic effort with Afghanistan's new president (once the second round of voting is completed), Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and Modi to lay the groundwork for a hands-off policy in the new Afghanistan. As I noted in my last post, civil war in Afghanistan after U.S. and ISAF troops withdraw is a real threat that may be averted if political and economic opportunities are available for all of Afghanistan's neighbors, especially India and Pakistan. No one will be served well by renewed conflict - this is a chance to ensure that peace follows Afghanistan's decades of war. 

As Clinton said in her Foreign Policy article, Asia is a key driver of global politics. India is one of the key states in Asia, now with a new prime minister ready to push hard for Indian development and global leadership. Obama should seize the opportunity to work with Modi toward the same goal.

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Shadow Government

The Other Veterans' Controversy: Political Endorsements

I do not have much to add to the BIG controversy relating to veterans: the reports of gross mismanagement of health services within the Department of Veterans Affairs. The reports are deeply disturbing, and President Barack Obama is right to shift into crisis-management mode. As with the debacle of the launch of the Affordable Care Act, this is a crisis that cannot be dismissed as partisan sniping. Obama needs to figure out what went wrong, why, and who was responsible -- and he needs to take decisive action along the way.

Coincidentally, there has been another, much smaller, controversy relating to veterans in the news: General Dempsey's comments in an interview about his desire that retired senior general and flag officers refrain from publicly endorsing presidential candidates. And as this one is squarely in my wheelhouse, I do have a few thoughts to add.

First some background: The dispute is over whether it is harmful for senior retired military to endorse presidential candidates. As my co-authors on an article for the Center for a New American Security Jim Golby, Kyle Dropp, and I have argued, the modern phase of this controversy probably began with Admiral William Crowe's surprising endorsement of then-Governor Bill Clinton in the 1992 election. The practice has escalated since then, and in the last presidential election the campaigns competed with dueling lists of general and flag officers (GO/FOs) who publicly endorsed one candidate or the other. Governor Mitt Romney may have won the "GO/FO primary" but our research showed that Obama probably got more electoral payoff, albeit a modest one.

General Dempsey has long been on record opposing this practice, and in a recent Q&A session at the Atlantic Council excerpted in the Defense News, returned to the subject:

If you want to get out of the military and run for office, I'm all for it. But don't get out of the military ... and become a political figure by throwing your support behind a particular candidate. If somebody asks me when I retire to support them in a political campaign, do you think they're asking Marty Dempsey or are they asking Gen. Dempsey? I am a general for life and I should remain true to our professional ethos, which is to be apolitical for life; unless I run.

This quote provoked some interesting on-line reaction on a website focused on military issues. Some commenters supported Dempsey, but more objected to his position.

Some may have been over-reacting to the headline, supplied by Defense News, not by General Dempsey: "Dempsey to Retired Generals: Shut Up When it Comes to Politics." So far as I have been able to determine, General Dempsey never said "shut up." A fairer headline, but one less likely to grab attention, would have been "General Dempsey to Retired Generals: Think Twice Before You Endorse Presidential Candidates." I am not saying that a famously frank General would never say "shut up," but I do think, as the quote itself indicates, that Dempsey's position is more complex than the headline suggests, and indeed, more persuasive.

Many of those objecting simply confuse the matter. At issue here is not the rights of retired military to publicly endorse candidates. Of course, they have the right to do so; while in uniform, they had to be silent because the Uniform Code of Military Justice does impose restrictions on what the military can do and say in the area of partisan politicking -- and for sound functional reasons. But once retired they are legally free to speak; the question is whether it is good for them to do so. More to the point, the question is whether doing so harms national security in ways that eclipse any benefit.

Also, as Dempsey makes clear, the issue is not whether retired military should run for office. Dempsey explicitly says he is fine with retired military running for presidential office, but objects to retired military -- especially the seniormost retired military -- publicly endorsing others who run.

How could such a distinction make sense? Because when a veteran runs for office he or she is explicitly crossing over the divide between partisan politics and military affairs. Dwight Eisenhower became forever President Eisenhower, Republican President. Wes Clark became forever Democratic Presidential candidate. Yes, people may still render the honorific title of "General" on Clark, but he is rightly seen as different -- more fully within the partisan world -- from other generals who stayed confined to military affairs. And by running openly, these men and women formally abandoned the military ethic of non-partisanship that is so important to the military profession.

GO/FO's who endorse publicly without running are trying to dip one toe in the partisan waters whilst keeping their privileged place as military professionals, above politics and serving as the neutral servant of the state, and representing the entire nation. For, make no mistake about it, Americans treat those who are perceived to be above politics with greater respect than those who are perceived to be fully engaged in partisan politics. And if an institution seems to migrate from above to below, then public esteem for that institution falls -- just ask the Supreme Court.

A big reason why political campaigns want public endorsements from senior retired military is precisely so as to bathe their candidates in the reflected glow of the public esteem for the supposedly-above-politics professional military. The campaigns are not interested in the particular endorsements of individuals, but rather in the corporate sense that group and high-profile endorsements appear to convey: "here is a candidate that the military institution would like to see be President." That is what Dempsey means when he says, "do you think they're asking Marty Dempsey or are they asking Gen. Dempsey?"

So retired GO/FO's should ask themselves, why are campaigns inviting me to do this and what does my endorsement convey. If the answer truly is, "the campaigns are only interested in me as an average citizen and my endorsement conveys no more meaning than the lawn sign my neighbor, the lowly professor, has outside his or her house" then what is the harm? But if the answer is, "the campaigns are only interested in my first name, which happens to be General or Admiral, and hope my endorsement conveys the notion that the military as an institution prefers this candidate" then the harm is more evident. 

I can think of two pernicious consequences. First, such endorsements contribute to the idea that the military is a partisan institution actively involved in partisan politics. That will erode public trust in the military -- something that may already be in jeopardy. Note how younger people have much less confidence in the military than older people do. Second, such endorsements weaken the advisory role of existing military and encourage the politicization of the selection of future GO/FO's.

Presidents live in fear of senior military officers who were privy to their counsels coming out to endorse their opponents. To protect itself from this, the White House is going to try to distance itself from senior military advisors they think might be prone to such behavior after retirement. And they will have further incentive to make sure that they are picking generals and admirals who are not likely to endorse an opponent. One unfortunate way to do that is to try to pick GO/FO's who agree with the president politically. That will erode the ability of active duty military officers to contribute professional advice to the policymaking process.

Eventually, if the practice runs rampant, the White House will seek assurances that the choices for the highest commands and offices are safe partisans rather than the very best officers for the job. Already some active duty officers have been accused of such partisan standing, lessening the persuasiveness of their professional judgment; in other words, the partisan activities among the senior retired ranks rebounds to lessen the influence and ability of their successors to fulfill their function in the nation's security.

So I think retired generals would be wise to heed Dempsey on this one, as well as his predecessors, including Admiral Mike Mullen and others who agreed, but didn't make as much of an issue of it because retired officers were less prone to violate the professional norm of nonpartisanship. In this case, think less about rights and more about wrongs.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images