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July 25, 2013

John Kerry's Priorities

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According to Josh Rogin and Eli Lake, Secretary Kerry has spent "years" trying to nudge the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table:

Long before he was sworn in as America’s top diplomat in January, Kerry in 2009 began conducting his own quiet peace process from the Senate through meetings, late-night talks, personal visits, and phone calls with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and other key leaders in the Middle East. Kerry conducted his shadow diplomacy even as President Obama’s Middle East peace initiative floundered.

Think about it: of all the issues facing the U.S. abroad, was this really the one that required hundreds of hours of diligent, pain-staking effort? Forget about whether or not Secretary Kerry will actually succeed in making peace (my money is on "no"), what would that peace even deliver for U.S. interests?

Meanwhile, there are potentially huge global trade deals to be had in Asia and Europe which could have a significant impact on the well being of Americans. Yet inexplicably, who lives where in the West Bank is of paramount importance.

(AP Photo)

June 18, 2013

America's Terrorism Strategy Makes No Sense

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Pew Research has released a new survey showing that a strong majority of the American people do not support President Obama's decision to arm the Syrian rebels. "Overall, 70 percent oppose the U.S. and its allies sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria; just 20 percent, favor this," Pew wrote. "Opinion is little changed from December of last year (24 percent favor) and support is down slightly from March, 2012 (29 percent favor)."

Regardless of what the American people think, the administration is plodding deeper into the Syrian morass. How deep they go remains to be seen.

Stepping back, though, you really do have to marvel at the abject absurdity of America's counter-terrorism policy. On the one hand, the danger from al-Qaeda is so tremendous and urgent, that it's imperative that all communications everywhere, including those of U.S. citizens, be monitored and collected in complete secrecy with almost no serious oversight.

On the other hand, it's not so urgent that we can't dump guns into groups fighting alongside (and with the same strategic goals) as al-Qaeda or worry about creating fresh new safe havens where they can plot further mayhem.

(AP Photo)

May 17, 2013

Berlusconi's Bunga-Bunga Parties Featured Women Dressed as President Obama

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Oh boy:

Silvio Berlusconi’s private disco featured women dressed not just as sexy nuns and nurses but also as President Barack Obama and a prominent Milan prosecutor the former Italian premier has accused of persecuting him.

Those are some of the details that have emerged Friday during the first public sworn testimony by the Moroccan woman at the center of the sex scandal involving Berlusconi.

I've never had the opportunity to host (or attend) a bunga-bunga party, but President Obama's likeness is about the last thing I'd want to see.

And food for thought: would Berlusconi's ladies have had to dress up as John McCain, if he won the election?

(AP Photo)

May 2, 2013

Syria Shows Which Voices Matter in the U.S. Foreign Policy Debate

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There have been several recent opinion polls in the U.S. showing a strong preference for staying out of Syria's civil war. A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 61 percent of respondents opposed U.S. involvement in Syria. Another, from the New York Times and CBS, found that 62 percent of Americans polled said Washington had no responsibility to "do something" about the fighting in Syria.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is signalling that it is ready to arm Syrian rebel groups, drawing the U.S. inexorably deeper in a struggle the American people say they want no part of.

All of this raises an important question: if the American people don't want any part of Syria's civil war, who does? Who's clamoring for action in Syria? As far as I can tell it consists of journalists and think tank analysts, members of Congress, some of the president's advisers and foreign governments. The American public, writ-large, as best we can tell, is not.

And that's all you need to know about whose opinion is actually decisive when it comes to shaping U.S. policies.

Let's also stipulate that the American people could be wrong about Syria. They certainly are not well informed: a full 36 percent of people polled had "neither heard nor read" anything about Syria's civil war, according to the Reuters survey. But right or wrong, their opinion doesn't count for much.

(AP Photo)

April 16, 2013

Will Boston Have Any Geopolitical Fallout?

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Events are very fluid following the gruesome terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon, but speculation is already swirling as to motive and responsible parties. As I spoke with friends and neighbors yesterday, several people asked me if I thought North Korea was behind it. That possibility never even crossed my mind (and for the record, I think it's wildly implausible) but it did get me thinking about the potential geopolitical fallout of this event if it can be traced to international sources.

In fact, there's only one plausible scenario* I can think of that would carry significant geopolitical consequences: If Iran's Revolutionary Guard or Hezbollah (or both) were behind it.

In response to the assassination of Iranian scientists, Iran has launched a wave of largely unsuccessful global terrorist attacks against Israel and the U.S. While many plots were bungled, Iran (via Hezbollah) did manage to kill Israeli civilians in Bulgaria and attempted to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S. in Washington.

If Iran's hand is in this act of terror, it would galvanize proponents of military action against Iran's nuclear program to push the administration for immediate action. The Obama administration would be under enormous pressure to act in some overt manner to punish Tehran. Yet unlike al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, there's no simple method of punishing Iran militarily that doesn't open the door to a much broader conflict. Retaliatory attacks aimed at the Revolutionary Guard or Iran's nuclear facilities could invite Iranian counter-moves and runs the well-established risk of a direct military engagement with Iran. Standing pat, however, will be politically difficult (if not impossible).

So, of all the potential scenarios associated with the Boston attacks, linkage to Iran carries the most significant geopolitical consequences.

Why not al-Qaeda?

The most likely global culprit is also the one least likely to spur any fundamental change to American security strategy or foreign policy. Three of al-Qaeda's main groupings -- in Pakistan, in the Arabian Peninsula and in Africa (the "Islamic Maghreb") -- are already the focus of intense counter-terrorism campaigns, drone strikes and covert action. If any of these groups are linked to the Boston attack it may lead to a stepped up campaign of drone strikes and covert action, but it's unlikely to radically reorient the Obama administration's current policy (it will, however, likely lead to a sharp debate over the drone strikes and whether they're a cause of, or solution to, incidents such as these).

*There are plenty of implausible scenarios which would have far-reaching consequences as well: just pick your favorite rogue or adversarial state and make them the culprit.

(AP Photo)

March 7, 2013

Americans Don't Think Obama Is Supportive Enough of Israel

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Billions in aid, vows to attack Iran, covert cooperation against Iran's nuclear program -- none of these policies are evidently enough to convince Americans that President Obama is "supportive enough" of Israel, according to a poll for the Hill:

The proportion of voters who now say the president does not give strong enough backing to Israel is higher than it was in each of three similar surveys conducted for The Hill since May 2011.

Correspondingly, fewer voters now find the White House’s policy excessively supportive of Israel.

According to the latest Hill Poll, just 13 percent of respondents say the president’s policy toward Israel is too supportive. A full 39 percent said Obama is not supportive enough, the highest percentage The Hill Poll has seen.

Moreover, 30 percent think the president is anti-Israel while 28 percent think he is pro-Israel.

Also interesting to note that while Americans evidently want the administration to do more to support Israel, a majority of voters also insist that President Obama should be "very or somewhat" active in forging a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.

(AP Photo)

March 5, 2013

Biden Promises a War with Iran

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Vice President Joe Biden warned in no uncertain terms that the U.S. would start a war with Iran if a deal could not be reached over its nuclear program.

“Presidents of the United States cannot and do not bluff, and President Barack Obama is not bluffing,” Biden declared. Of course, that's not true. Presidents bluff all the time. Still, this warning is consistent with the administration's line on Iran, which is that a war is coming if a negotiated settlement can't be reached.

Jonathan Tobin liked what he heard:

While Biden’s typically long-winded and meandering speech contained some highly questionable statements, such as his defense of engagement with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, his remarks also took the administration another step down the road to confrontation with Iran. Instead of merely alluding to the use of force by saying that all options were on the table, he made the case that the current futile diplomatic process with Tehran was defensible because it gave the administration the ability to tell the world that it had done everything possible to avoid conflict before resorting to force.

Aside from making the adolescent hysteria over Chuck Hagel look ridiculous, Biden's promises also underscore the fact that the administration that boasted that a "decade of war is now ending" is charging headlong (and needlessly) toward another.

(AP Photo)

February 25, 2013

Americans Think the World Thinks Better of Them

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Americans are increasingly satisfied with how their country is viewed in the world, according to Gallup's U.S. Global Status Index.

The country's satisfaction with its global status is the highest it's been since 2006, but the index itself (which is based on three questions pertaining to America's global status) shows key variations. While Americans are happier with their country's perception in the world, they have consistently lost faith in the proposition that other leaders respect President Obama -- although the current president still rates significantly higher on this score than his predecessor during the depths of the Iraq war.

Americans on the whole are also still largely unsatisfied with their position in the world. What's a superpower to do?

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(AP Photo)

February 14, 2013

Has Obama Lost Pakistan?

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In his State of the Union address earlier this week, President Barack Obama had this to say about U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the (mostly) Muslim world:

Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.

As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.

One place left unmentioned in the president's address was Pakistan, where a recent Gallup poll indicates that disapproval of U.S. leadership is at an all-time high:

With President Barack Obama's first term characterized by strained relations between Pakistan and the U.S., more than nine in 10 Pakistanis (92%) disapprove of U.S. leadership and 4% approve, the lowest approval rating Pakistanis have ever given.
Pakistanis now more than at any other time in the past three years feel threatened by interaction with the West, according to a May 12-June 6, 2012, survey. A majority (55%) say interaction between Muslim and Western societies is "more of a threat," up significantly from 39% in 2011. This sharp increase is observed at a time of heightened Pakistani concerns regarding U.S. encroachment on Pakistani sovereignty, including an intensified number of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, as well as the aforementioned May 2011 killing of bin Laden by the United States military.

Enlisting "values" in the fight against terrorism is all well and good, but values projection isn't a direct marketing campaign. American values are understood abroad not through rhetoric, but through policy. While drones are certainly a more cost efficient, and less invasive, form of interventionism, they are a form of intervention nonetheless. The president came into office hoping for a reset with the Muslim world, but the "Muslim world" isn't a place; it's a concept comprised of many different sects, regions, languages, nationalities and interests. As it turns out, matters of sovereignty, national identity, regional supremacy and patriotism matter to Muslims, too. (Shocking, I know!)

Over 10 percent of the world's Muslim population resides in restive, nuclear-armed Pakistan. There's certainly no panacea for fighting fringe organizations like al-Qaeda, but if President Obama is so concerned about Muslim extremism, then he might want to stop alienating the places where most of the world's Muslims happen to live.

February 13, 2013

How Will Obama's Nuclear Cuts Play in Asia?

During his State of the Union address, President Obama pledged to further cut America's nuclear arsenal. The exact figure wasn't specified, but it's been reported that the goal is to reduce the force from the current 1,700 "deployed weapons" down to 1,000, provided some kind of deal can be reached with Russia.

While China's nuclear arsenal is tiny in comparison, it has been undergoing a process of modernization and C. Raja Mohan argues that China will continue to stand aloft from any disarmament talks for the time being:

This approach leaves Beijing much leeway in responding to Obama's latest nuclear initiative. It allows Beijing to hold the high diplomatic ground on supporting the long-term goal of global zero, promising to join multilateral talks on nuclear reductions when it is convenient, and leaving room for its nuclear weapon modernisation in the interim.

Mohan argues that while most of America's close allies in Asia may be worried that America's "extended deterrence" would be weaker with a smaller arsenal, one major player is likely to be heartened by Obama's reductions:

In contrast to some in East Asia, India has every reason to welcome Obama's plans to negotiate deeper nuclear cuts with Russia. Like China, India has seen deep cuts in the US and Russian arsenals as an important first step on the road towards nuclear disarmament.

Restrainers vs. Shapers in U.S. Foreign Policy

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Thomas Wright argues that the "new debate" among Democrats in foreign policy is a divide between "shapers" who want America to play an activist role abroad and "restrainers" who don't. Wright sees a short-term win for the restrainers, with a caveat:

Restraint is an idea that seems to fit the moment. Americans are tired of war and feel more constrained after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. However, over time, the realization will set in that staying out also shapes the world -- and probably in a way that is detrimental to America's interests. It creates a vacuum filled by others. It fuels uncertainty. And it exacerbates crises.

Larison isn't buying it:

Armed foreign intervention, providing military supplies to one side in a conflict, and imposing sanctions on another country create their own kinds of uncertainty and exacerbate the crises they are meant to address, and they do so in ways that directly involve the U.S. and impose longer-term obligations on it. Toppling regimes creates vacuums that are filled by others, and that has been true even when the U.S. has had over a hundred thousand soldiers occupying another country. The reason that restraint often makes more sense than interference is that it is quite unusual to find cases where interfering would benefit the U.S. and the country in question more than it costs both. The impulse to “shape” events in other countries is misguided in principle and frequently destructive in practice. Put bluntly, the “shapers” in both parties have had their turn for the last twelve years, and they aren’t likely to get another one for a while.

The frustrating thing about Wright's overview of the debate is that it's focused solely on military questions, as if that is the only way in which the United States can or should exercise "influence" in the world. I think it's true that there is a constituency, in both parties, that wants to see the U.S. less militarily engaged around the world, but that is manifestly not the same thing as being "restrained" when it comes to economic engagement or traditional diplomacy.

(AP Photo)

February 11, 2013

Obama's Syria Call

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During testimony last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs indicated that they had agreed with a State Department and CIA proposal to arm factions of the Syrian rebellion. This advice was rejected by the Obama White House after a CIA analysis showed that the light weapons under consideration would not have shifted the balance. The idea of providing heavier weapons, like shoulder-fired missiles, was apparently not considered.

Naturally, this is being seized on by proponents of arming the rebels, such as Sen. John McCain, as proof of the president's shortsightedness. Instead, it seems like a prudent call.

All the arguments for providing Syria's rebels with heavy, "game changing" weapons hinge on the outcome of a post-war Syria, and that is an area where Senator McCain and others have been awfully vague. Merely toppling the Assad regime does nothing for America. The resulting chaos could be worse for U.S. interests if al-Qaeda cells flourish and begin attacking regional and international targets, or if another anti-American regime takes hold. If the U.S. can't make the situation better, it's wise not to make it worse.

(AP Photo)

February 9, 2013

Obama vs. His Cabinet on Arming Syrian Rebels

Watch White House, Cabinet Split on Civil War in Syria on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Reports surfaced this week that the Obama White House rejected the advice of the CIA, State Department and Defense Department to arm the Syrian rebels. The NewsHour explores the internal debate.

December 31, 2012

Why Hagel Should Not Tell Obama to Go to Hell

Terry Michael thinks that Chuck Hagel should prefer a pose of ideological purity to becoming secretary of defense:

Assuming his nomination isn't proactively yanked by the president, here's the question that Hagel first needs to answer: Should he allow himself to be used as a pawn in Barack Obama’s continuing deflection of presidential responsibility?

Tempting as it may be to get inside the tent, Hagel should decline. Given Obama's uninspiring track record, he won't have a major impact on policy. Far more likely, he'll serve as a prop for a president who asserts the right to kill even American citizens without judicial oversight and to send manned and unmanned planes anywhere he chooses.

This doesn't sound very persuasive. Ultimately, if people sympathetic to Hagel's views on various matters want their arguments to prevail, they're going to need to wield positions of authority. That will naturally entail some compromises and deviations from time to time, but that's inevitable. An ideological purity that never translates into policy outcomes isn't worth much.

Update: Larison adds more:

What makes Terry Michael’s argument even less persuasive than Scoblete allows is that Hagel would have virtually no influence as an outside critic demanding that Obama “bring the troops home now.” There is no guarantee that a Secretary Hagel would move the administration in the right direction on many things, but he will likely be a brake on military spending and future military action instead of a goad to both. The chances are good that he would be an advocate for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan as quickly and completely as possible, and he stands a much better chance of making that happen if he is inside the administration than if he remains outside it.

December 28, 2012

The Libyan Intervention and Syria

Walter Russell Mead makes a very odd argument here:

Not to harp on the same sad note over and over again, but the West could have been much more effective in averting the more dangerous and devastating disaster in Syria had it not intervened in Libya first. This is not to say that solving Syria would have been simple absent the toppling of Qaddafi. But statesmanship is all about making prudent choices, and the choice we made was anything but. Qaddafi’s fall has left Libya an unstable question mark and has created new problems in Mali and beyond. The consequences of the Libyan intervention dissipated the political capital of the interventionist wing of the Obama administration; even the noblest and most multilateral Wilsonians can launch only so many wars in a presidential term. And by choosing to intervene in Libya while making lots of empty boasts and vain noises about our commitment to universal human rights and principles, we encouraged the Syrians to believe we would help them at the same time we made help less likely. This has cost both us and the Syrians much already; the bill will continue to mount.

Look, I distrust Wilsonians as much as the next guy, but none of this makes any sense.

First of all, the Syrian revolution didn't take its impetus from Obama administration rhetoric but from Assad's oppression. Moreover, it was only well into the Syrian revolution that the general public began to notice that the Libyan intervention hadn't gone as well as advertised (basically after the Benghazi consulate attack). When Gaddafi was hauled out of his sewer pipe and sodomized with a knife, the Obama administration was patting itself on the back for waging a smarter war. That's the kind of hubris that tends to lead to more interventions -- not fewer.

It also strains credulity for Mead to suggest that it was somehow a (non-existent) Libyan war fatigue that stayed the administration's hand in Syria and not the objectively different circumstances at play. Syria was (and is) a tougher nut to crack: the costs of intervention are significantly higher than in Libya. Syria has more great power support than Libya did and the regime has a much more robust defense establishment than Libya.

But what makes Mead's argument all the more untenable is that he accurately describes the history of U.S. intervention in the Mideast as misguided and more often producing negative consequences, then suggests that the U.S. should nonetheless "do more" in Syria so that things would be better:

A more “selfish” policy—doing less in Libya and more in Syria—would likely have had better strategic and humanitarian results than the dog’s dinner of a policy that we have actually followed.
Of course, we're not told what "doing more" in Syria means nor given any reason to believe why it would be better. Chances are, if Mead's description of U.S. actions in the region are accurate, it wouldn't be better. It would make things worse -- a dog's dinner on a much wider scale. Yet in his odd zeal to slam the Obama administration over Libya, Mead twists himself into arguing that we should make an even bigger mistake in Syria. Mead insists on presenting a partisan lesson about Libya (Obama = incompetent Wilsonian) instead of actually digesting the upshot of his argument, which is that Libya (and Iraq, and Afghanistan) prove that U.S. interventions in the Mideast are dangerous and counterproductive and need to be avoided unless absolutely necessary.

December 26, 2012

Is the U.S. Digging Itself a Deeper Hole in Yemen?

The Washington Post offers some reporting from Yemen that suggests the U.S. drone campaign there is creating a mess:

U.S. airstrikes have killed numerous civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world, and those governments have spoken against the attacks. But in Yemen, the weak government has often tried to hide civilian casualties from the public, fearing repercussions in a nation where hostility toward U.S. policies is widespread. It continues to insist in local media reports that its own aging jets attacked the truck.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has kept silent publicly, neither confirming nor denying any involvement, a standard practice with most U.S. airstrikes in its clandestine counterterrorism fight in this strategic Middle Eastern country.

In response to questions, U.S. officials in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was a Defense Department aircraft, either a drone or a fixed-wing warplane, that fired on the truck. The Pentagon declined to comment on the incident, as did senior U.S. officials in Yemen and senior counterterrorism officials in Washington.

Since the attack, militants in the tribal areas surrounding Radda have gained more recruits and supporters in their war against the Yemeni government and its key backer, the United States. The two survivors and relatives of six victims, interviewed separately and speaking to a Western journalist about the incident for the first time, expressed willingness to support or even fight alongside AQAP, as the al-Qaeda group is known.

“Our entire village is angry at the government and the Americans,” Mohammed said. “If the Americans are responsible, I would have no choice but to sympathize with al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda is fighting America.”

Public outrage is also growing as calls for accountability, transparency and compensation go unanswered amid allegations by human rights activists and lawmakers that the government is trying to cover up the attack to protect its relationship with Washington. Even senior Yemeni officials said they fear that the backlash could undermine their authority.

“If we are ignored and neglected, I would try to take my revenge. I would even hijack an army pickup, drive it back to my village and hold the soldiers in it hostages,” said Nasser Mabkhoot Mohammed al-Sabooly, the truck’s driver, 45, who suffered burns and bruises. “I would fight along al-Qaeda’s side against whoever was behind this attack.”

Relatedly, Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen spoke to the Canadian International Council about the budding air war in Yemen. It's a very illuminating interview and in it, Johnsen argues that U.S. policy in Yemen is backfiring:

In the West, the debate over U.S. policy in Yemen has become focused on drone strikes, but in Yemen, the focus is on the civilian casualties that are a result of some of those strikes. When the Obama administration started carrying out attacks in Yemen, there were about 200-300 individuals affiliated with AQAP. Today, it’s at least 1,000 – in fact, the U.S. State Department estimates that it’s at least a few thousand. I don’t think all of this is attributable to the use of drones, or to the civilian casualties they’ve resulted in, but I think a large portion of it is, and because of this, one of the things that I think the U.S. has to do is reconsider its strike policy.
Johnsen goes on to argue that a more targeted policy of fewer strikes against only truly high value targets may yield better results. But he also makes a crucial point -- because of the secrecy that surrounds U.S. counter-terrorism policy, it's very hard to make critical judgments about its effectiveness:
So we’re all basing our analyses on what’s been made public, and because there’s so little of that and so much that remains shrouded in secrecy, we’re all able to import our own biases into the discussion. Two well-intentioned, honest individuals could look at the same thing, and one could claim the action represents an evolution of what the term “imminent threat” means, while the other could see an example of the U.S. acting as a counterinsurgency air force. The truth is that most of us on the outside just don’t know what the government officials who are making these decisions are thinking, or what’s driving the program.

December 21, 2012

Character Assassination Isn't an Argument

One of the striking things about the argument over Mr Hagel, who was a Republican senator for Nebraska for 12 years, is the nastiness of the arguments over foreign policy within the Republican Party. The disputes within the party over taxes and immigration are so prominent that it is easy to lose sight of the fierce disagreements between its realist and neo-conservative wings. The same sort of personal animus was evident when the Romney campaign announced that Bob Zoellick, the former World Bank boss and realist standard-bearer, would be in charge of foreign policy personnel in the event of an election victory, prompting howls of disapproval from neo-conservatives. If Mr Romney had won the election, the infighting would have been fierce. -- Geoff Dyer

I think we need to distinguish between "howls of disapproval" and "nasty smears." It's perfectly fine for neocons to argue (even howl) that Hagel is unfit to be defense secretary because he's soft on Iran or whatnot, but to call him an anti-Semite is character assassination.

December 18, 2012

The Real Hagel Debate

Ever since former Senator Chuck Hagel's name has been floated as a possible nominee for Secretary of Defense, critics have been attacking his supposed lack of support (even "animus") for Israel. Bill Kristol went so far as to say a Hagel nomination would be a referendum on "who has Israel's back."

More relevant, I think, are the issues Josh Rogin zeroes in on:

Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, rumored to be in contention for the job of defense secretary, has a long record of opposing sanctions on countries including Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, and Cuba.

Hagel, who serves as co-chair of President Barack Obama's intelligence advisory board, throughout his career has publicly supported the idea of engaging with rogue regimes and focusing on diplomacy before punitive measures. While in Congress, he voted against several sanctions measures and argued vociferously against their effectiveness.

Hagel's stance on sanctions puts him outside of the current consensus of his Senate colleagues -- even outside the public position of the Obama administration, which has touted its harsh sanctions against Iran and has mostly maintained the panoply of economic shackles on Cuba, North Korea and Syria. His preference for engagement over confrontation is also at odds with President Obama's pledge to deny Iran a nuclear weapon no matter what.

The trouble for Hagel's critics is that the sanctions regimes against all of these countries have failed to produce the desired outcome. Iran and North Korea continue to advance their nuclear programs and missile programs, respectively. The Castros still rule Cuba. Assad remains in power in Syria and if he falls (or when he falls) no one will believe it was because the U.S. slapped sanctions on the ruling regime.

But that doesn't mean Hagel's supporters are going to have an easy time of it. In none of the above cases is it clear that engagement would work miracles (and to be fair, Hagel has said as much). The problem with most proponents of engagement is that it's difficult to claim on one hand that the U.S. has "vital" interests in a region or particular outcome and then whirl around and say the only way you'll pursue those interests is through dialogue. As I wrote in 2008:

By conceding the premise of American security interests, it’s easy to see why Democrats keep losing the politics. If America is to be the world’s policeman, who is the more credible figure: the state trooper ready to club the bad guys, or the security guard at the mall, brandishing a walk-talkie?

The politics have clearly shifted a bit since I wrote this, but there is still an environment of irrationality and demagoguery that hangs over these issues that makes it difficult to make the case for engagement unless you're willing to concede that the U.S. really doesn't have a vital stake in the outcome -- something Hagel (or any high office holder) is unlikely to do.

Hagel's position on sanctions also cuts directly against Washington's self-professed identity as moral arbiter of the globe. As Michael Rubin unwittingly demonstrates in his attack on Hagel, sanctions serve, in part, as a kind of moral affirmation for those in the U.S. foreign policy community who believe the purpose of U.S. power is the uplift of the human soul. In this view, you are morally suspect if you are unwilling to endorse collective punishment and subject literally millions of people to economic misery and hardship in the attempt to coerce a handful of people in a regime to change course.

It's also important to remember that Hagel's views on engagement and sanctions are just one question that needs to be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Equally, if not more important, are his views on the kind of military the U.S. should field in the future and America's global defense posture. Where does he believe future defense dollars should be allocated? What kind of military would he want to build?

December 10, 2012

The Obama Administration's 'Benign Neglect' of Israel

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Peter Beinert outlines his view of the Obama administration's second term approach to Israel:

So instead of confronting Netanyahu directly, Team Obama has hit upon a different strategy: stand back and let the rest of the world do the confronting. Once America stops trying to save Israel from the consequences of its actions, the logic goes, and once Israel feels the full brunt of its mounting international isolation, its leaders will be scared into changing course. “The tide of global opinion is moving [against Israel],” notes one senior administration official. And in that environment, America’s “standing back” is actually “doing something.”

Administration officials are quick to note that this new approach does not mean America won’t help protect Israel militarily through anti-missile defense systems like the much-heralded Iron Dome. And they add that the U.S. will strongly resist any Palestinian effort to use its newfound U.N. status to bring lawsuits against Israel at the International Criminal Court. America will also try to prevent further spasms of violence: by maintaining the funding that keeps Mahmoud Abbas afloat in the West Bank and by working with Egypt to restrain Hamas.

What America won’t do, however, unless events on the ground dramatically change, is appoint a big-name envoy (some have suggested Bill Clinton) to relaunch direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The reason: such negotiations would let Netanyahu off the hook. Senior administration officials believe the Israeli leader has no interest in the wrenching compromises necessary to birth a viable Palestinian state. Instead, they believe, he wants the façade of a peace process because it insulates him from international pressure. By refusing to make that charade possible, Obama officials believe, they are forcing Netanyahu to own his rejectionism, and letting an angry world take it from there.

I wouldn't interpret it this way at all.

Consider what the Obama administration is doing: it is still offering Israel the full panoply of material and military aid and support, it is still going to orient its regional diplomacy around making the Mideast safer for Israel and it is going to impede any Palestinian attempts to leverage international bodies to Israel's disadvantage. In exchange for this, the administration is not going to push Netanyahu to do anything. Instead, it's simply going to refrain from defending Israel rhetorically from European criticisms.

If you were Netanyahu, wouldn't you take that deal?

Moreover, the "facade of the peace process" was never for the benefit of Netanyahu -- or Israel, for that matter. It was a means for the United States to offset the negative regional response to U.S. aid to Israel. Dropping this facade isn't going to materially harm Israel, and I doubt it will do any damage to the U.S., either. It has long been understood in the region that U.S. aid to Israel is unconditional, so the new administration policy isn't a sharp break with the past. Indeed, it seems like the Obama administration is resetting U.S. policy to what it was under the first term of the Bush administration: there will be a stated desire for a negotiated settlement ending in "two states for two peoples" but little U.S. effort to push the process along.

(AP Photo)

November 19, 2012

President Obama: No Country Should Tolerate Missiles Raining Down on Them (Except the Ones We're Bombing)

"There's no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders." - President Obama

As Mike Riggs wrly observes, "That is a very interesting thing to say at a time when the U.S. is regularly raining missiles down on Pakistan and Yemen."

Interesting indeed. President Obama is right, of course. Which is why the U.S. shouldn't be surprised when its own missile campaigns generate anti-Americanism and terrorism targeting U.S. interests.

Has Obama's "Light Footprint" Strategy in the Middle East Really Failed?

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David Sanger's piece in the New York Times highlights a lot of what I think is wrong about how foreign policy is discussed in Washington. The piece is anchored around the observation that a lot of things are bad in the Middle East right now (Syria, Iran's nuclear program, a war between Israel and Gaza militants) and that Obama has taken a "light footprint" approach to the region, ergo the light footprint is to blame.

This is dubious on a number of levels.

First, the "light footprint" simply isn't true relative to the baseline of America's presence in the Middle East circa the late 1970s. It is only "light" relative to the occupation of Iraq during the years 2003-2008. The U.S. still retains military bases in Kuwait and Bahrain, conducts regular military exercises in the region and has positioned additional naval power in the Gulf to contain Iran.

So the notion that President Obama has employed a "light footprint" makes almost no sense, unless we're talking about sustaining an occupation force in the region of over 100,000 U.S. troops -- and even then, Sanger's argument is untenable. There were more civilians killed in the Middle East when the U.S. had a "heavy footprint" than under Obama's light one.

Second, it's anchored in an assumption that the Middle East's problems are America's to solve - and that simply putting more effort into it (enlarging our "footprint") will yield the results we desire. This is an assumption that is belied by the history of outside powers- particularly Western powers -- in the Middle East. From the disastrous map-drawing of the victors of World War I to the disastrous intervention in Iraq, foreign powers have always struggled to forge a Mideast more to their liking.

The idea that President Obama's policies are failing presupposes a coherent alternative approach that Sanger doesn't mention (probably because it doesn't exist).

This is not to carry water for President Obama's Middle East policy - it has certainly failed, or disappointed, on a number of fronts. But it is to suggest that the reluctance to get the U.S. deeply involved in the region (any more than it already is) is based on an appreciation that U.S. interests in the region are changing and that the ability to effect positive change is extremely limited.

(AP Photo)

November 15, 2012

Will Obama's Pivot to Asia "Score Points" with the Chinese?

Lewis Simons writes in praise of President Obama's "pivot" to Asia:

Mr. Obama, by accepting a friendly invitation to visit Southeast Asia, is choosing instead to deal with China as an equal on neutral turf, rather than seek direct confrontation. No threats. Just a show of smart power.

While his gradualist approach certainly will not be cheered by American conservatives, it is a style that is likely to score points among Chinese and other Asians who see a freshly reminted American president approaching them not with a clenched fist but with an open hand. He proposes refurbishing a long-faded American presence on the Asian mainland, competing again for its raw materials, investments and markets. [Emphasis mine]

While some Asian states have clearly welcomed the administration's "pivot," China hasn't been among them (see also here and this study of Chinese reactions to the pivot here).

President Obama isn't approaching China with as clenched a fist as the U.S. could possibly make, but the signs of a containment regime are unmistakable. It appears to be the case that Chinese officials preferred to deal with Obama than with Romney, but that does not mean their minds will be put at ease with respect to U.S. strategy.

That's not a bad thing, per se. The U.S. does need an approach to China that balances the defense of vital security interests with the need to avoid thoughtless provocation. Still, we shouldn't kid ourselves about what's going on. Certainly, the Chinese understand that the "pivot" is aimed at them and not in a manner designed "to score points."

November 12, 2012

Obama's Light Footprint Strategy

Would Jackson Diehl have preferred to land 130,000 U.S. troops inside Libya? That seems to be the upshot of his column today:

But ultimately the disaster in Libya derived from Obama’s doctrine. Having been reluctantly dragged by France and Britain into intervening in Libya’s revolution, Obama withdrew U.S. planes from the fight as quickly as possible; when the war ended, the White House insisted that no U.S. forces stay behind. Requests by Libya’s fragile transition government for NATO’s security assistance were answered with an ill-conceived and ultimately failed program to train a few people in Jordan.

A new report by the Rand Corporation concludes that “this lighter-footprint approach has made Libya a test case for a new post-Iraq and Afghanistan model of nation-building.” But the result is that, a year after the death of dictator Moammar Gaddafi, Libya is policed by what amounts to a mess of militias. Its newly elected government has little authority over most of the country’s armed men — much less the capacity to take on the jidhadist forces gathering in and around Benghazi.

The Rand study concludes that stabilizing Libya will require disarming and demobilizing the militias and rebuilding the security forces “from the bottom up.” This, it says, probably can’t happen without help from “those countries that participated in the military intervention” — i.e. the United States, Britain and France. Can the Obama administration duplicate the security-force-building done in Iraq and Afghanistan in Libya while sticking to the light footprint? It’s hard to see how.

It's worth noting that both Iraq and Afghanistan are far from stable success stories. If Diehl is moved to call Obama's Libya campaign a "disaster" because four Americans were killed by terrorists, he needs to examine how many Americans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of U.S. policies there.

Even if the U.S. and Western allies were to dump 130,000 personnel into Libya for security-force training and stability operations, there's no guarantee of success. Instead, what would almost certainly happen instead is that a large number of foreign forces offering to "assist" Libya would provoke an indigenous insurgency - just as it did in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Is this what Diehl wants?

The only sensible conclusion to be drawn from this is that the U.S. should have stayed out of Libya in the first place and should keep its current failures in mind when debating forward-looking policy in Syria. It's true that the "light footprint" approach employed by the administration cannot bring stability to these countries, but the "large footprint" approach is too expensive and dangerous. The sensible conclusion to be drawn from this, then, is that the U.S. needs a "no footprint" approach unless absolutely vital interests are implicated.

October 31, 2012

If the U.S. Election Were Held in the UK or Canada

Barack Obama would win:

In the online survey of representative national samples, Canadians prefer Barack Obama to Mitt Romney by a 7-to-1 margin (72% to 10%), while Britons favour the Democrat over the Republican by a 10-to-1 margin (62% to 6%).

Roughly half of respondents in the two countries (49% in Canada, 52% in Britain) think Obama has performed at the level they expected.

One-in-four Canadians (24%) and 18 per cent of Britons believe Obama has performed worse than they expected.


September 20, 2012

The Collapse of Washington's Cherished Orthodoxies

Every foreign policy dogma suffers from its own conceits. For neoconservatives, it's the idea that military force and demonstrations of "will" can routinely produce favorable policy outcomes around the world. For the Democratic foreign policy establishment, one guiding conceit is arguably the notion that a more globally popular America will allow a largely identical series of policies to be accepted much more happily. These are generalizations, of course, but I think they largely fit the bill.

Just as the Iraq war exposed the limits of the neoconservative doctrine, the riots engulfing the Middle East have surely revealed the fallacy of the global popularity doctrine. Because, as Richard Wike explains, it's difficult to improve America's image without actually changing American policies:

Why hasn't America's image improved? In part, many Muslims around the world continue to voice the same criticisms of U.S. foreign policy that were common in the Bush years. U.S. anti-terrorism efforts are still widely unpopular. America is still seen as ignoring the interests of other countries. Few think Obama has been even-handed in dealing with the Israelis and the Palestinians. And the current administration's increased reliance on drone strikes to target extremists is overwhelmingly unpopular -- more than 80 percent of Jordanians, Egyptians, and Turks oppose the drone campaign.

The opposition to drone strikes points to a broader issue: a widespread distrust of American power. This is especially true when the United States employs hard power, whether it's the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or the drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. But it is true even for elements of American soft power. Predominantly Muslim nations are generally among the least likely to embrace U.S. popular culture or the spread of American ideas and customs. Only 36 percent of Egyptians like American music, movies, and television, and just 11 percent believe it is good that U.S. ideas and customs are spreading to their country.


September 12, 2012

Is Obama to Blame for an Arab Winter?

If the Arab spring turns into an “Arab winter,” as Romney put it, and tumult spreads across the region, a backlash could certainly build against Obama’s handling of the uprising, leaving Romney to profit politically. - Alex Altman

It's unlikely that such a critique would need to be coherent to actually work politically, but it's still worth asking where it is that Obama supposedly fell short. Yes, the statement out of the Cairo embassy was ridiculous and mealy mouthed. The U.S. should never have apologized for a film, no matter how puerile and inflammatory. But the charge that President Obama has "mismanaged" the Arab Spring makes one huge assumption and one deeply absurd one.

The huge assumption was that there was a series of policy options available to President Obama that would have avoided these attacks on American embassies. That's doubtful. Under the best of circumstances, the U.S. can't ensure a 100% defense against terrorist attacks - which is what the Libyan tragedy appears to be (not the work of raving fundamentalists, although they provided the cover). The legacy of anti-Americanism and fundamentalist rabble-rousing is also rather entrenched in the Middle East at the moment and it's not clear what Obama was supposed to do to alleviate that over the last two years.

Moreover, how should the administration have reacted to the various uprisings? Should Obama have insisted that Mubarak and Gaddafi stay in power lest the forces of radicalism overwhelm the region? (But then he'd be betraying American values, wouldn't he?) Should he have waved a magic wand and turned states that suffered under decades of corruption, mismanagement and autocracy into functioning, stable, pro-American democracies?

Undoubtedly, the administration has slipped up in its handling of the Arab Spring; it's a momentous, historic event that caught the U.S. largely off guard. But this leads to the absurd assumption implicit in the criticism of the administration: that the U.S. federal government can deftly finesse the direction of Middle East politics in the 21st century. Particularly for those who profess a love of "limited government" it seems rather farcical to claim that the same incompetent government that can't be trusted to balance the budget can reach across the ocean and create a Middle East more to its liking.

Yet in the clown show of contemporary politics, it's enough to lob a series of incoherent criticisms into the air and call it a day.

August 24, 2012

The Problem with Threatening Iran with War

Charles Krauthammer thinks Anthony Cordesman has the right idea for dealing with Iran:

“There are times when the best way to prevent war is to clearly communicate that it is possible,” he argues. Today, the threat of a U.S. attack is not taken seriously. Not by the region. Not by Iran. Not by the Israelis, who therefore increasingly feel forced to act before Israel’s more limited munitions — far less powerful and effective than those in the U.S. arsenal — can no longer penetrate Iran’s ever-hardening facilities.

This is a common refrain among analysts - that only a credible threat of war has any chance of making Iran change course. The basic problem, though, is that for the threat to be genuinely credible the U.S. has to be ready to follow through on it. It's a policy that backs both countries - the U.S. and Iran - into a corner. Iran submits or the U.S. starts another war in the Middle East.

To endorse the threat of war against Iran is to endorse the real thing.

July 17, 2012

Obama's Approach to the Middle East Peace Process

Over the weekend, the Washington Post's Scott Wilson published a long piece detailing the Obama administration's efforts to forge a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians. In it, Wilson touches on the president's early thinking:

Obama’s view of the conflict broke from Bush’s approach, which he believed overtly favored Israel and damaged the United States’ ability to play the role of trusted mediator. Bush developed a close relationship with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a Likud member for decades until breaking off to form a centrist party known as Kadima. He even took Sharon to his ranch in Crawford, Tex., before Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.

With what they viewed as mixed results from the Bush years, some Jewish leaders in the meeting that day disagreed with Obama’s assessment that only by creating some public distance with Israel could diplomatic progress be made with the Palestinians.

“The case he was trying to make was that the United States will be a better partner to Israel if it has more credibility with the Arab states, that we will be a better, more useful friend to Israel if we have more friends in the Arab world,” Rhodes said.

So now we have two case studies in the Bush and Obama approaches. One hugs Israel very tightly, the other tries to put some "public distance" between the two countries. Neither produced a negotiated settlement.

You have to believe, at this point, that the idea of fostering an enduring peace settlement between the two parties is beyond Washington's ability, and that such a reality is probably starting to sink in in Washington.

June 7, 2012

How Obama Undermines the Drone Program

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The question of civilian casualties is one of the more important metrics in the use of terrorist-targeting drones. If U.S. targeting has a very high degree of accuracy with very few civilian deaths, the use of drones is more defensible. If drones are killing large groups of civilians or it's unclear who's dying and how important they are in the al-Qaeda hierarchy, then it's harder to justify - at least on a widespread basis.

The Obama administration has had a difficult time squaring up on this issue, so now they have a new, simplified formula. To wit: a combatant is anyone killed by a U.S. drone. Or as the New York Times writes:

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

So not only do we not know who's getting killed by the drones, we now know that the administration is cooking the books in a way to deliberately confuse matters. Unfortunately, by doing so they're undermining the fundamental legitimacy of the drone program. It's not only that the public doesn't have enough information to judge the program's efficacy (that's unavoidable, given its nature) but it is now impossible to trust what information the government is providing. That's hardly the basis for a legitimate, sustainable policy.

This approach is also likely to impress upon any young man downwind of U.S. drones that America places a very low value on their life. For a country whose political class engages in endless self-congratulatory paeans to "American values," it sure is an odd message to send.

(AP Photo)

June 5, 2012

Israel Wouldn't Lose U.S. Support After an Iran Strike

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The Obama administration and its allies have spent a fair amount of time attempting to persuade Israel not to attack Iran. Barbara Opall-Rome highlights one argument in particular:

Robert Blackwill, a former U.S. deputy national security adviser and coordinator for U.S. policy planning on Iran, also warned Israel of the consequences of a premature strike without support from Washington and key international allies. If, as a result of a precipitous Israeli attack, Iran retaliated with terror attacks on American citizens, Israel would be viewed as dragging the U.S. into a war with Iran.

“If there were attacks on the American homeland, how many Americans might think that Israel dragged us into a war and now shopping malls were being blown up?” Blackwill said in his May 30 INSS address.

I don't think Blackwill's analysis is all that persuasive here. Most Americans aren't paying attention to Iran's nuclear program or the possible consequences of an Israeli military attack. It's likely that in the wake of an Iranian retaliatory strike on U.S. soil, the first and most politically potent reaction would be to take the fight back to Iran - not unpack the events leading up to the attack in an effort to understand why it happened.

Americans have a dim view of Iran and a very high view of Israel. An Iranian attack against America - even if it could be tied directly to an act of war initiated by Israel over American objections - would probably reinforce these views, not change them. There would, of course, be elite frustration at Israel in some quarters, including among U.S. national security officials who had been urging restraint - but that wouldn't really have any material impact on Israel. Indeed, quite the opposite: U.S. aid and intelligence cooperation in the wake of any Israeli strike on Iran would probably be heightened so as to manage the fallout.

The only conceivable way an Iran strike would boomerang on Israel in the court of U.S. public opinion would be if the U.S. made some kind of very public ultimatum to Israel which the latter flagrantly ignored, followed by Iranian actions that broadly damaged American interests (terrorist attacks and/or spiking the price of oil). Again, it's hard to see that happening. All U.S. officials who speak publicly on the matter affirm Israel's inherent, sovereign right to act in their own interest. Israel may have other reasons to hold off on striking Iranian nuclear facilities, but concerns about the U.S. reaction probably isn't one of them.

(AP Photo)

June 4, 2012

Debating Obama's Outstretched Hand to Iran

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There's a certain mythology that's taken hold about President Obama's Iran diplomacy. Nile Gardiner summarizes it well:

As it has done with Russia, the Obama presidency has attempted to “reset” relations with Iran. But with both Moscow and Tehran, Washington has failed. Both hostile powers have grown emboldened and aggressive in the face of American weakness, and Iran’s brazen attempt to kill a foreign diplomat in the capital city of the United States showcases the folly of the White House’s softly-softly approach towards the ruling mullahs.

While Washington dithers, Iran is marching closer and closer to developing a nuclear weapon, which according to some estimates is just six months away.

We now know that President Obama wasn't 'dithering' or naively offering olive branches but instead escalating a covert campaign of cyber-sabotage from the very first days in office. If you think cyber attacks are small potatoes, consider how one unnamed U.S. military official framed the emerging U.S. cyber war doctrine: "If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks."

This raises the question of just how sincere President Obama's efforts were to engage the regime in Tehran. The Leveretts, pointing to an argument they made in 2009, insist that those efforts were completely insincere and fatally undermined any chances for a negotiated settlement:

If anything, we may have underestimated the degree to which Obama was prepared to let half-baked schemes undermine any chance he might have had, at least in theory, to pursue serious diplomacy with Iran. Obama apologists... want us to believe that the President meant well on engaging Tehran, but that what they describe (with no evidence whatsoever) as the Islamic Republic’s “fraudulent” 2009 presidential election and the resulting “disarray” within the Iranian leadership stymied Obama’s benevolent efforts. This is utterly false.

I'm not sure about this. Negotiating with an adversary while simultaneously fighting them is not all that uncommon in international diplomacy. To take one contemporary example: the U.S. is negotiating with the Taliban while both sides trade blows. The U.S. was able to make strategic arms control deals with the Soviet Union while both sides engaged in a global standoff that involved plenty of dirty tricks.

Still, this does underscore the fact that there's really not much more Governor Romney could do to thwart or impede Iran's nuclear progress that President Obama hasn't already tried. There may be one or two arrows left in the quiver short of a military assault, but not many.

(AP Photo)

May 30, 2012

Obama's Kill List Includes 'Smart Power'

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Michael Hirsh documents how the Obama administration is going to position the president during the campaign:

In a powerful one-two punch, The New York Times and Newsweek have just come out with extensively reported articles demonstrating how personally and deeply involved Obama is with killing terrorists--a lot of terrorists. Even to the point of occasionally taking out innocents. (Both stories are very detailed followups to an article National Journal/Atlantic published a year ago.)

The question is, now that the image of Obama-as-hard-power-president seems to be settling in as conventional wisdom, how will that play at the polls? Recent results, for example the NYT/CBS poll in April, suggest that Obama and Romney are evenly matched when it comes to commander-in-chief credentials. That's actually pretty good for a Democrat, indicating that at worst Obama may have successfully neutralized what has traditionally been a GOP strong point.

Expect a lot more of this hard-power-sell from Obamaland in the months ahead. As we reported some months ago, the Obama camp is gearing up to present the president as the toughest Dem on national security since JFK -- throwing off, at long last, the Vietnam albatross that has weighed the party down since LBJ split the Dems over that unpopular war and Ronald Reagan took up the banner of strong-on-defense. No surprise: both the NYT and Newsweek pieces (the latter is excerpted from a book) indicate that the administration was quite cooperative on the reporting.

Many progressives have desperately wished for this outcome - that a Democrat could finally "own" the issue of national security - but I can't imagine they're happy with how President Obama has done it. In fact, far from developing a new doctrine, or proving the efficacy of diplomacy or demonstrating the saliency of "smart power" - President Obama is simply trotting out a pile of corpses as his national security bona fides.

Politically, one can sympathize with the idea that a president who has liquidated the U.S. commitment in Iraq and is attempting to draw down in Afghanistan and cut U.S. military spending would seek some "hawkish" policy as political cover. But whatever else one can say about it, it's far cry from refashioning the national security debate in the U.S. And it goes a long way to explaining why Governor Romney is choosing to attack President Obama from the hawkish/interventionist side. There appears to be no political downside to interventionism - despite the fact that the U.S. is deeply in debt or that 'victories' like the one in Libya are dubious achievements at best.

(AP Photo)

May 8, 2012

No U.S. President Can Be a Dove

Via Andrew Sullivan, Conor Friedersdorf laments some mislabeling:

In summary, President Obama escalated a major war and sent tens of thousands more troops to fight it, even as he joined in regime change in a different country, ordered drone strikes in at least three others, and sent commandos into Pakistan, a list of aggressive actions that isn't even exhaustive.

It's perverse for that record to be rendered, in America's newspaper of record, as Obama "straddling the precarious line between hawk and dove." In fact, he is a hawk. Republicans are misrepresenting his record and positions and some progressives are doing the same, because they are rightly embarrassed by the gulf between his campaign promises and the record he's amassed.

I think what Friedersdorf has identified is the bankruptcy of the hawk/dove label. In reality, no post-Cold War U.S. president could accurately be called a "dove." Every Democratic president since Roosevelt has either initiated large wars, escalated those wars, ramped up military spending or used military force in some capacity. Any contemporary president inherits a foreign policy apparatus that is weighted heavily toward the military (with its global footprint and immense budget) and a bureaucracy that perceives itself as stewards of the global order. Throw in the war on terror, with its open-ended mandate for interventionism, and it's silly on its face to call any president a "dove."

What's always interested me is why Republicans have chosen to ignore the tradition of Eisenhower and Nixon (presidents who stepped in to end the failed or stalemated wars initiated by their Democratic predecessors) and instead run as the amplified id of America's quasi-imperial foreign policy. Rather than step back and question some basic premises of America's global footprint or set of "interests" in need of a global nanny state funded by U.S. taxpayers, most Republicans run on a platform of global activism and big government.

May 3, 2012

Obama Has Started New Wars

If anything, the beginning of the end in Afghanistan will help Obama build his “leadership” case against Mitt Romney. With the killing of bin Laden, the intervention in Libya, and the gradual end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has the resume he needs to present himself as a strong and competent manager of the country’s foreign affairs, which in turn, might improve perceptions of his economic management. What’s more, this provides a clear contrast with Romney, who at varying times in the last three years, has opposed each of these moves. At the end of the day, Obama will be able to pose a simple question to the American public—“Do you want a president who has brought peace, security, and good relations with our allies, or do you want a president who has called for extending our wars, and starting new ones?" [Emphasis mine - GS.] - James Bouie

Right. So President Obama will hail the success of the new war he started in Libya while castigating Romney for wanting to start a new war. I suspect we'll see this kind of cognitive dissonance emerge frequently during the campaign.

April 25, 2012

The Future's Uncertain and the End Is Always Near

The pivot, we tell the Chinese, is not about them. But then Manila and Tokyo ask: "What do you mean the pivot isn't about China. The Chinese are unwelcome visitors into our waters at least once a week!"

Oh, and we have new battle plan called "Air Sea Battle" that again is not about China. However, it is meant to operate in "anti-access" environments -- those in which enemies have many missiles, submarines, and cyber warfare capabilities. Sounds like China. We will be able to operate again in those environments once the plan is executed, but we will not execute it because we are cutting the defense budget, so China should worry a bit but not too much. Our allies should have just a little dose of reassurance to go along with their fears. - Dan Blumenthal

I wonder if "uncertainty" is actually the problem. What Blumenthal highlights is not really "uncertainty" but the administration's mealy-mouthedness (my word) with respect to what's it's doing in Asia. As Blumenthall notes, it's putting in place a semi-militarized containment strategy with the pivot, but is also taking great pains not to call it that lest it damage relations with China, which are rather important.

So what's the problem with this? There is nothing "uncertain" about establishing military bases in Australia and holding naval exercises with countries at China's perimeter. Does Blumenthal think U.S. allies in Asia would be more reassured if the administration actually took a sharper tone with China or explicitly framed its "pivot" in terms of Chinese containment?

He also writes:

Here is another part of the uncertainty doctrine that must leave Europeans and Middle Easterners scratching their heads: The United States is pivoting to Asia (under fiscal constraint) but not abandoning its allies in Europe or the Middle East.

I agree this is silly. If we're prioritizing Asia then it means we must correspondingly de-emphasize other regions. So imagine if President Obama said: "the U.S. is under fiscal strain and has to prioritize resources accordingly. That means we must shift our attention from a Europe that is peaceful and secure to Asia, where our interests will require more attentive monitoring."

Would Blumenthal hail this as providing clarity or would he condemn Obama for betraying U.S. leadership? The president's current rhetoric is designed to shield him from just such an accusation because Washington is unable to have an adult conversation about this stuff.

February 24, 2012

Obama's Iran Policy - Bringing on a Recession?

It's not clear at this point whether President Obama's strategy will deprive Iran of a nuclear weapon, but it might deliver the U.S. into the grips of another recession.

Put simply, if oil remains as expensive as it currently is, or gets even higher, the U.S. economy will almost certainly fall back into a recession - potentially a nasty one given the already high unemployment.

Now, there are a lot of structural factors beyond the Iran standoff that are driving expensive oil, particularly the growth in demand from Asia. Even if the U.S. were to ease Iranian supply back into the market, oil is likely to be expensive on an ongoing basis (unless we tip back into a recession again). But we're not going to do that. In fact, U.S. strategy right now is to keep as much Iranian oil off the market as possible, making the price higher.

Now, supporters of this strategy claim that Saudi Arabia stood ready to make up for the loss of Iranian crude - but that's not happening. Not because Saudi Arabia doesn't want to pump more, it's because they can't pump more.

Presumably the administration believes that an Iran with nuclear weapons would do worse damage to U.S. interests than a possible second recession (or a prolongation of the Great Recession bequeathed by the Bush administration). Unfortunately, we may be about to test this hypothesis.

February 8, 2012

Poll: Americans Endorse Drone Strikes Against Americans

A new ABC News/Washington Post poll gives President Obama high marks in foreign policy:

Eighty-three percent of Americans in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll approve of Obama’s use of unmanned drones against terrorist suspects, 78 percent back the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 70 percent favor keeping open the Guantanamo Bay detention center – the latter a reversal by Obama of his 2008 campaign position.

It also notes American comfort with targeting fellow citizens for death by drone:

Two-thirds in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, also favor the use of unmanned drones specifically against American citizens in other countries who are terrorist suspects – potentially touchier legal territory.
Interesting to note that the poll specifically describes those targeted by drones as "suspects" - so there appears to be ample support for killing Americans even if their guilt is not firmly established.

January 31, 2012

It's Not How Many Troops You Have, It's How You Use Them

There's a growing debate over President Obama's decision to reduce the number of U.S. ground forces by 92,000 by 2017. Frederick Kagan says it's a mistake:

Advocates of the president’s strategy say that we do not need that human capital or expertise in ground operations because we will never again fight wars that put large numbers of our soldiers at risk. Technology, they say, will make future wars precise, rapid and decisive. We have heard this argument many times since the Cold War ended, from George W. Bush as enthusiastically as Bill Clinton. Yet every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan has ordered tens of thousands of troops into ground combat. Obama himself sent 70,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops have been deployed abroad to wars or peacekeeping operations for 38 of the past 70 years — and nearly continuously since 1989. The argument that next time will be different is unpersuasive.

And you know what - Kagan's right. Though many of these deployments were unnecessary and ill-advised, they happened anyway. President Obama is not foreclosing the option for a future administration to make a bad decision simply because they'll have fewer resources at their disposal. Multiple military experts told the Bush administration that an invasion and occupation of Iraq would require far more troops than Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was prepared to commit, but they were ignored and a massive strain on the U.S. military ensued.

But I guess it's worth pointing out that real issue here isn't the number of troops but the strategic decision-making surrounding their deployment. There really wouldn't be an argument about whether or not we needed to retain these 92,000 soldiers if President Bush had made a better decision vis-a-vis Iraq (or President Obama vis-a-vis Afghanistan).

Via Andrew Sullivan, Peter Munson hits the nail squarely on the head:

America did not enter any of these wars (going back to Vietnam) as a counterinsurgent or a nation-builder. America entered these wars with ill-defined strategic goals, the result of lowest common denominator bureaucratic negotiations. These goals were not sufficiently thought out, clearly stated, or properly subscribed to by the government writ large, resulting in nearly immediate drift. This fact should point us toward the true roots of the problem.

When it comes to small wars, American national security decision-making institutions predispose the nation to failure. America tends to involve itself in conflicts with insufficient resources and ill-defined aims, expand its commitments based on continually changing policies, and run out of public support before these adventures have run their course.

The entire piece is an absolute must-read. As Munson points out, what unites these wars is that they are almost always wars of choice. But I suspect that Kagan is correct that it's a choice Washington will continue to make.

President Obama Defends Drone War

In his YouTube/Google + question and answer, President Obama fielded some questions about America's drone campaign. Here, via USA Today, is his defense:

Well, you know, I think that we have to be judicious in how we use drones.

But understand that probably our ability to respect the sovereignty of other countries and to limit our incursions into somebody else's territory is enhanced by the fact that we are able to pinpoint strike on al Qaeda operative in a place where the capacities of that military in that country may not be able to get them.

So, obviously, a lot of these strikes have been in the Fattah [sic] and going after al Qaeda suspects, who are up in very tough terrain along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. For us to be able to get them in another way would involve probably a lot more intrusive military actions than the one that we're already engaging in.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't be careful about how we proceed on this. And you know, obviously, I'm looking forward to a time where al Qaeda is no longer operative network and, you know, we can refocus a lot of our assets and attention on other issues.

But this is something that we're still having to deal with, there's still active plots that are directed against the United States, and I think we are on the offense now. Al Qaeda's been really weakened, but we've still got a little more work to do, and we've got to make sure that we're using all our capacities in order to deal with it.

Speaking of Google+, you can now find RCW there as well.

January 25, 2012

Obama's Empty SOTU Grand Strategy

Rosa Brooks makes some perceptive comments above regarding what foreign policy content there was in President Obama's state of the union address.

Christopher Preble didn't like the invocation of America as "the indispensible nation":

Have we learned nothing in the past decade? Have we learned anything? To say that we are the indispensable nation is to say that nothing in the world happens without the United States’ say so. That is demonstrably false.

Of course, the United States of American is an important nation, the most important, even. Yes, we are an exceptional nation. We boast an immensely powerful military, a still-dynamic economy (in spite of our recent challenges), and a vibrant political culture that hundreds of millions of people around the world would like to emulate. But the world is simply too vast, too complex, and the scale of transactions in the global economy is enormous. It is the height of arrogance and folly for any country to claim indispensability.

The president is hardly alone, however. Many in Washington—including some of his most vociferous critics in the Republican Party— celebrate the continuity in U.S. foreign policy as an affirmation of its wisdom. The president’s invocation of the “indispensable nation” line from the mid-1990s is merely the latest manifestation of a foreign policy consensus that has held for decades.

But the world has changed, and is still changing. Our grand strategy needs to adapt. When we embarked on the unipolar project after the end of the Cold War, the United States accounted for about a third of global economic output, and a third of global military expenditures; today, we account for just under half of global military spending, but our share of the global economy has fallen below 25 percent.

It's like U.S. foreign policy rhetoric is an exercise in Stuart Smalley-esque self-esteem building.

January 24, 2012

Grading Obama's Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy conducted an interesting symposium, asking a number of analysts to grade President Obama's foreign policy. They didn't invite me, but that doesn't mean we can't play along. Here's a quick, incomplete list of what I think the president got right, wrong and what judgments are better left to history:

Successes:

1. Shifting America's strategic focus to Asia

2. Coordinating a global response to the Great Recession

3. Killing bin Laden and the upper echelon of al-Qaeda's leadership

Failures:

1. Arab-Israeli peace making

2. Prolonging a large-scale deployment of U.S. troops in Afghanistan

3. The intervention in Libya's civil war

To be determined:

1. The Russian "reset"

2. Containing Iran

3. The Arab Spring

4. Paring back U.S. defense spending

5. Expanding the drone war beyond Pakistan

January 13, 2012

What Is Obama Doing in the Middle East?

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, told a group of supporters on a private conference call Wednesday that the entire idea of deploying large numbers of troops in the region, which has been U.S. policy since the Gulf War in 1990, is now over.

"The tide of war is receding around the world," said Rhodes. "It's certainly going to be the lowest level, in terms of number of troops, that we've seen in 20 years. There are not really plans to have any substantial increases in any other parts of the Gulf as this war winds down."

Just after the administration announced it was not able to reach a deal with Iraq to extend the U.S. troop presence there in October, the New York Times reported the administration was planning to increase troop levels in nearby countries, such as Kuwait, to account for the risk of Iraq backsliding into violence. But Rhodes said Wednesday that's just not the case. - Josh Rogin, Dec. 16, 2011

The Pentagon quietly shifted combat troops and warships to the Middle East after the top American commander in the region warned that he needed additional forces to deal with Iran and other potential threats, U.S. officials said.

Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, who heads U.S. Central Command, won White House approval for the deployments late last year after talks with the government in Baghdad broke down over keeping U.S. troops in Iraq, but the extent of the Pentagon moves is only now becoming clear.

Officials said Thursday that the deployments are not meant to suggest a buildup to war, but rather are intended as a quick-reaction and contingency force in case a military crisis erupts in the standoff with Tehran over its suspected nuclear weapons program. - LA Times, Jan. 13, 2012

Either Mr. Rhodes didn't get the memo, or the administration is talking out of both sides of its mouth.

December 29, 2011

Does Obama Really Want a War With Iran?

I used to be of the mind that the Obama administration would ultimately not launch a preventative war against Iran's nuclear program, but I'm beginning to change my mind. Over the past few weeks, there have been several unmistakable signals that the Obama administration is serious about starting a war with Iran if the country does not come clean about its nuclear program. First, we had Dennis Ross, formerly of the administration, assuring us in no uncertain terms that President Obama would use military force if need be. Then came the "clarification" of Defense Secretary Panetta's remarks cautioning against such a strike. And now Eli Lake's reporting that the Obama administration is discussing its "red lines" with Israel to assuage their concerns about America's willingness to go to war over Iran's nuclear program.

Finally, and most significantly, is the potential sanctioning of Iranian oil. This is, for all intents and purposes, a declaration of war against Iran as it cuts the country's economic lifeline, leaving Iran little choice but to fight, capitulate or face severe economic deprivation.

So either the administration is engaged in a very high-wire bluff designed to make Iran think an attack is likely or it is actually willing to start a new war in the Middle East. In any event, if I were an Iranian strategist, I would be preparing for the worst.

December 28, 2011

Obama's Short Term vs. Long Term Risks

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The last few weeks has revealed an interesting divergence to how the Obama administration treats long and short term risks.

First, there's Iran. We're used to hearing that one of the key interests of the U.S. in the Middle East is the security of oil. But almost every move the Obama administration has made with respect to Iran has driven the price of oil up in the short-term (notwithstanding the impact the global economy is having on oil prices). An administration concerned with lowering oil prices for American consumers would not be actively seeking to keep Iranian crude off global markets or goading Iran into doing the same. Yet the administration is obviously willing to tolerate short-term pain to stave off the long-term implications of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

In Pakistan, and with counter-terrorism more broadly, the administration appears far more concerned with short-term risks than long-term dangers. The sharp deterioration in U.S.-Pakistan relations speaks directly to this - the Obama administration has ramped up drone strikes and cross-border attacks to stem a short-term threat without much concern for the potential long-term damage it is doing. Similarly, Obama's aggressive use of drone strikes and the resulting collateral damage is a strategy that clearly is more concerned with immediate risks than longer-term dangers.

Does the administration have the balance right?

(AP Photo)

December 12, 2011

Mapping a Pacific President

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President Obama has called himself America's "first Pacific president." Tom Lasseter created the map above to highlight visits from key Obama administration officials:

It strikes me that the map's message is in the eye of the beholder. If you throw in Obama's trip to China in 2009, it suggests the blanket approach that the Americans have claimed. And there are, of course, many non-China reasons for trips to places like Pakistan and Russia.

But if you don't trust the United States and see its increased engagement in Asia as a way of hemming in China's rise, well, it might suggest that too.


I think a fair reading is that it's a bit of both.

November 22, 2011

State Capitalism: Good for Jobs?

Charlie Szrom thinks the Obama administration's foreign policy has failed to create jobs because, in part, the administration has not engaged in the same kind of state-capitalism that marks the economies of China and Russia:

The second policy set consists of those government actions that directly influence the sales, bids, and operations of American companies. In regions such as Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America, American companies often face steeper odds in winning new business than firms from countries whose governments provide more support.[Emphasis mine]

I'm confused. I thought conservatives believed that private enterprise would flourish if the government just got out of the way.

November 16, 2011

Obama's Pivot to Asia

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On the whole, I think the Obama administration's plan to rotate U.S. Marines in and out of a base in Australia is sensible. The U.S. should be slowly but surely removing military assets from Europe and especially from the Middle East and diverting some of those assets into Asia (as well as pruning back the defense budget overall). Not everyone sees it that way, of course. Here's the Washington Post:

Yet it was telling that the first question Mr. Obama fielded after summing up the 21-nation summit he hosted was not about the trade deal or the summit or even China. It was about Iran’s nuclear program, which is threatening to trigger yet another war in the Middle East. The message to the president was unintentional but fitting: “Pivoting” to Asia won’t make the threats to U.S. security in the Near East — or the urgency of addressing them — go away.

I don't know anyone who thinks that a U.S. pivot to Asia would suddenly make the Iranian nuclear program "go away." The point is not that such a pivot would solve the problems of the Middle East, the point of the pivot is that the Middle East's problems aren't America's to solve.

Justin Logan does raise a more substantive, longer-term issue: the potential for Asia to take a free-ride on U.S. defense assistance in much the same way Europe does.

The U.S. is seeking to replicate, on a somewhat smaller scale, the strategic dependencies it fostered in Europe. This has led to a deep and damaging imbalance, whereby the U.S. foots an enormous defense bill while Europe uses the savings to invest elsewhere. It makes absolutely no sense today - in an era where Asia is projected to enjoy strong economic growth and America isn't - to underwrite the defense of any Asian state, much less a constellation of them.

But there's a conundrum - the more the U.S. moves military assets into Asia, the more "credible" its commitment to regional balancing. Yet the more credible America's commitment, the greater the potential for free-riding. I suspect the Obama administration is far more concerned about establishing U.S. credibility than it is concerned about the potential for free-riding, but it needs to balance both. The U.S. doesn't have the resources - and China is far from a Soviet-style threat - to simply reprise the Cold War playbook.

(AP Photo)

November 7, 2011

Why Obama Won't Bomb Iran

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Here's why I don't think it's probable absent some dramatic development: there would be very little international support for the effort. If the lead-up to the Libyan intervention is instructive, it should tell us that the administration values multilateral cover - in the form of a UN Security Council resolutions and the sanction of the Arab League. It is difficult, at least today, to see either of those bodies signing onto a military campaign against Iran. Russia and China are likely to shield Iran in the Security Council and the Arab League is still smarting over Libya.

So yes, as David Rothkopf writes, the administration is not shy about using force, but it has only undertaken large-scale action against another state when the multilateral stars aligned. Picking off the odd pirate and terrorist via drones doesn't really approach the magnitude of starting a major war with Iran.

(AP Photo)

October 20, 2011

"Psychological Pendulums"

Gates offered a last-ditch case against intervention, arguing that Libya had little strategic value. He warned that the U.S. often ended up "owning" what happened, pointing to Kosovo and the no-fly zone over Kurdistan in Iraq. He said he was wary of getting involved in a third Muslim country, and feared "a stalemate."

The president answered these arguments himself. According to one participant's summary, Obama said: Look, the question of who rules Libya is probably not a vital interest to the United States. The atrocities threatened don't compare to atrocities in other parts of the world, I hear that. But there's a big "but" here. First of all, acting would be the right thing to do, because we have an opportunity to prevent a massacre, and we've been asked to do it by the people of Libya, their Arab neighbors and the United Nations. And second, the president said, failing to intervene would be a "psychological pendulum, in terms of the Arab Spring, in favor of repression." He concluded: "Just signing on to a no-fly zone so that we have political cover isn't going to cut it. That's not how America leads." Nor, he added, is it the "image of America I believe in." - Michael Hastings

President Bush took his lumps for many a facile assertion about the regional impact of removing Saddam Hussein from power, but the rationale offered by President Obama here is just as tenuous. It is also demonstrably false. NATO's intervention in Libya has not rolled back counter-revolutionary forces in Syria or Bahrain (or Saudi Arabia, or Egypt). Gaddafi's death, welcome though it is, won't change that either - whatever momentary fillip it gives protesters in the Arab world is not going to change the balance of forces in the region. In fact, watching Gaddafi's bloody carcass being hauled around may convince the region's autocrats to crack down harder lest they find themselves similarly discomfited.

It's also worth reflecting on the threshold this administration set for risking the lives of American military personnel. It's true that the NATO mission in Libya was fairly low-risk compared to the range of options available, but it still carried serious risks. Imagine if a U.S. plane had been shot down by Gaddafi forces. Would President Obama explain to a mourning family that their son or daughter had to die because the president was concerned about the "psychological pendulum" of the Middle East?

October 7, 2011

Terror's Existential Threat

I think when we frame issues of the cost of terrorism and the magnitude of the threat, things like this need to figure fairly prominently:

American militants like Anwar al-Awlaki are placed on a kill or capture list by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions, according to officials.

There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel, which is a subset of the White House's National Security Council, several current and former officials said. Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.

The panel was behind the decision to add Awlaki, a U.S.-born militant preacher with alleged al Qaeda connections, to the target list. He was killed by a CIA drone strike in Yemen late last month.

The role of the president in ordering or ratifying a decision to target a citizen is fuzzy. White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to discuss anything about the process.

Surely a power that would never be abused by this or any future administration...

September 6, 2011

Here's the Obama Doctrine

Obama's Libya policy may not amount to a doctrine, but it did establish two principles. Last March, Obama explained that we must intervene when there's a risk of massacres or genocide, but we can never do so alone unless Americans are directly at risk.

At face value, I find this borderline repugnant. America shouldn't be the world's policeman, but neither should we make it a matter of principle to say we won't stop genocide when and where we can simply because no one will join our posse. - Jonah Goldberg

I doubt that the Libyan war established the principles that Goldberg claims here. But I do think the war established a principle, and a very important one at that: the U.S. will no longer be an occupying power.

The Libyan war, combined with the Obama administration's lethal expansion of special forces and drone attacks in Somalia and Yemen, drive this point home. The U.S. will continue to wage what can only be called a "war" on terror, but one that is far more asymmetrical and under the radar. This is almost certainly for the good. While drone campaigns will undoubtedly radicalize some (especially if they're used hyper-aggressively), they're far less radicalizing than a large scale troop presence in a foreign country.

August 10, 2011

Government Activism

Jennifer Rubin wants some:

Deeply regrettable.

That’s actually one way to describe the peculiar mix of indifference and incompetence that characterizes President Obama’s foreign policy. Why didn’t we call for Assad’s ouster months ago? Why didn’t we take charge in Libya, short-circuiting Moammar Gaddafi’s reign of terror? Why were we mute during the 2009 Green Revolution? When Russian operatives set off bombs in Georgia? When China arrested more high-profile dissidents? It is a long and ignominious record of indifference and appeasement, mixed with pompous pronouncements of our good intentions.

So we'd replace pompous pronouncements of our good intentions with pompous pronouncements of our outrage. Where would that get us?

August 4, 2011

Blaming Obama for Syrian Violence

Considering Obama has pledged to support the Arab Spring, his failure to do more in Syria is shameful and puzzling. If Assad is overthrown, the entire power equation in the region changes in ways favorable to the West and unfavorable to the mullahs in Iran. Short of an invasion—which no one advocates—we cannot decisively alter the course of events in Syria. But we do have the ability to bring considerable influence to bear, if we take a strong stand along with regional allies such as Turkey. So far that hasn’t happened, and the people of Syria continue to pay a price for this president’s characteristic ambivalence. - Max Boot

Implicating President Obama in the slaughter of Syrian protesters by their murderous rulers strikes me as unfair, to put it mildly. Boot links to Elliott Abrams' piece outlining what the U.S. can do to thwart the Assad regime. His suggestions boil down to these six items:

1. Use "psychological warfare" against members of the military.
2. Ask Turkey for help.
3. Talk bad about Assad in public.
4. Sanction Syrian businesses.
5. Ask the Syrian opposition to say nice things.
6. Topple Gaddafi.

Given that a bona fide armed uprising and NATO bombing campaign has failed to dislodge Gaddafi (thus far), why would these measures do much to deter Assad and company much less staunch the immediate humanitarian crisis?

July 15, 2011

Isolationism and Primaries

Michael Cohen's recent contribution to the American Isolationism debate is a solid read, but I believe he makes a more inadvertent revelation toward the tail end of his piece:

In the 1990s, when I served in the Clinton Administration as a foreign policy speechwriter, my colleagues and I regularly trotted out the claim that Republicans, by questioning the President's foreign policy positions, were returning to the isolationist spirit of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. It wasn't, but the sobriquet was an effective one that brought with it connotations of appeasement and weakness in the face of foreign threats.

Its return today, as well as the ease and frequency with which it is made, are a reminder that a step away from foreign policy orthodoxy and toward a position of urging restraint -- no matter how tepid -- can make one susceptible to the isolationist charge. It's only from the perspective of that orthodoxy would the recent warnings of American overstretch could be considered a retreat from the global stage.

In other words, "Isolationism," at least in its present context, is a political word having very little to do with any real policy, and once the dust settles on the Republican primary process the Washington foreign policy consensus will reemerge - leaving little time or tolerance for debate on matters abroad.

The eventual Republican nominee won't beat this president on foreign policy matters; if Obama loses, it'll be due to the flailing domestic economy. Obvious observation, perhaps, but it seems to be forgotten every time foreign policy analysts and experts start pulling their hairs out over the supposedly puerile nature of our IR dialogue.

These debates about "Isolationism" and "retrenchment" can be a bit frustrating, but we should probably enjoy them while they last. Once "generic Republican candidate" becomes a real person the political debate will likely shift toward jobs and the economy, leaving the Washington foreign policy community quietly waiting for the dust to settle.

July 8, 2011

Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

Greg outlines four points on why Libya is Obama's Iraq. I must disagree. All four points open up a raft of counter responses, some of which go to the current president's benefit. The strongest is likely the third - "preceded by over-confident predictions" - but then, this could be said about the majority of American conflicts, and there is a matter of degrees (which Greg concedes).

But the fourth claim - "surrounded by Potemkin coalitions" - seems the greatest conflation of ravens and writing desks. Colin Powell's much-maligned coalition of the willing was at least a genuine coalition: eventually numbering thirty-four nations, five of which provided troops to the tune of roughly 48,000. Of course, the Bush administration's decision to dawdle and dither in the post-war years, including a epic levels of mismanagement by the State Department and the CPA, resulted in vast increases in the cost of Iraq's prosecution which the U.S. bore almost entirely alone and which peeled off allies over several years. But this does not make the initial coalition less real.

If a major problem with the Bush coalition was that its goal was far too limited to one aspect (not speaking in any serious way to the post-Saddam reality), the Libya coalition's major problem is that it cannot even decide on what their goal is, publicly at least. Even the simple question of coalition policy toward Gaddafi is a difficult one for Obama to answer. And senior rebel military leaders do not believe his ouster is even possible. (The question remains: is the real foe here Gaddafi or Marine Le Pen - the Lunatic of Libya or La Peste Blonde?)

Seen within the context of NATO's long slouch toward irrelevance, the criticism that coalition-based activity is really the U.S., the UK and a series of press releases is increasingly valid. The point is that the Bush coalition's goal in Iraq was limited to the toppling of Saddam Hussein, a goal it realized (even more rapidly than expected, which was part of the problem) before fissures emerged. Obama's coalition, on the other hand, was cracking apart before it accomplished anything of significance in Libya, and indeed before they could even decide on the coherent purpose of the coalition other than following France's lead.

July 7, 2011

Obama's Iraq?

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The news that the Pentagon has had to go to Congress to request that $5 billion in its budget be "reshuffled" to compensate for the growing costs of the war in Libya isn't surprising. Indeed, it's clear now that Libya is President Obama's Iraq. Certainly not in scale, obviously, but the two conflicts share many of the same hallmarks:

1. They were not necessary: If it's difficult to claim that U.S. security would have been intolerably threatened had the U.S. not invaded and occupied Iraq, it's absurd to say that the U.S. would have been imperiled or its interests irreparably harmed had it not stepped into Libya's civil war.

2. They were sold on the basis of exaggerated claims: The Bush administration used more apocalyptic rhetoric, but the Obama administration has been quite expansive in its claims of a history-staining calamity that awaited if the U.S. did not act.

3. They were preceded by over-confident predictions: Iraq was indeed a cake-walk, before it turned into a quagmire. Libya will - one hopes - not turn into another ward of the United States, but the breezy prediction that the campaign would last "days not weeks" has been proven erroneous.

4. They were surrounded by Potemkin coalitions: President Bush's "coalition of the willing" was far more substantial than President Obama's, but nonetheless the U.S. was on the hook for the lion's share of the costs in Iraq. Despite "leading from behind" in Libya, the U.S. is still paying through the nose as NATO gripes from the sidelines.

There are obviously differences in scale and cost, but many of the policy-making patterns, and perhaps more importantly, attitudes, seem eerily familiar.

(AP Photo)

June 30, 2011

Obama's Afghan Dishonesty

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Peter Beinart dings President Obama for failing to level with the American people about the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan:

Even if we stayed for 20 years, building a government that can stand on its own might be beyond our capacity. We’d go broke trying, and there is little reason to believe the future of this Afghan government is vital to U.S. security. Barack Obama didn’t even say so in his speech.

But Obama did imply that his administration’s surge has so weakened the Taliban that they’ll trade their weapons for negotiations and eventually join the current government, thus allowing the U.S. to leave an Afghanistan headed towards peace. That’s what Mr. Amini was disputing. There’s an honest way to advocate for withdrawal from Afghanistan and a dishonest way. The dishonest way is to suggest that we’ll leave behind a government that can secure the country and a political process than can end the war. The honest way is to acknowledge that the Afghanistan we leave behind will be a chaotic, ugly place where the Taliban rules large swaths of the country, and much of what we have built may be washed away.

That's a winning message to take into 2012, isn't it?

But seriously, spinning the U.S. withdrawal doesn't make a lot of sense. I suspect most Americans understand that the U.S. will leave Afghanistan much as we found it - at war with itself.

(AP Photo)

June 27, 2011

Why America Won, Then Lost, the Afghan War

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I was travelling during President Obama's Afghan speech and after reading and abosrbing the commentary surrounding it, I think it's clear that President Obama was faced with an impossible rhetorical task - he had to explain to the United States that it won, then lost, the Afghan war.

The problem that has plagued the Afghan war from the start has been Washington's inability to define a narrow, achievable objective. Since January 2002, the U.S. squandered a quick and limited victory against the Taliban and al-Qaeda by larding on additional objectives involving the political structure of the Afghan state. The basic idea was noble enough - the U.S. would help rebuild an Afghanistan that could forge a terror-free, post-Taliban era.

Unfortunately, the move from a limited goal of destroying al-Qaeda's safe haven and killing those responsible for 9/11 to the more ambitious goal of creating a post-Taliban Afghanistan was well beyond anything the U.S. had the capabilities, resources or will to achieve. It was a goal at odds with how bin Laden's global terror network had evolved since losing its Afghan safe haven. It was also premised on the debatable proposition that regular Afghans would staff a national army tasked with fighting and dying to advance American policy priorities.

The Obama administration has paid lip service to this reality, publicly ratcheting down U.S. goals, but rather than adjust tactics it simply doubled down on the original proposition that Afghanistan could be rebuilt (i.e. "stabilized") to the point that the U.S. could leave the place relatively in tact before departing.

After listening to the president's speech, I believe Obama wants to appear committed to unwinding the U.S. nation building effort, but he is still bound by an orthodoxy that insists that the U.S. can build an Afghan state that's to its liking. It's an understandable, even commendable, impulse. It is also a counter-productive one.

(AP Photo)

May 20, 2011

Why Not Honesty?

The president's message seems to be that we will speak out on core principles while doing little to promote them. This is likely to incur to American foreign policy all of the detriments of acrimony from governments whose assistance we need and charges of hypocrisy from those working for change, without accruing the benefits of actually fostering change.

The Bush administration is rightly criticized for being long on vision and deficient in day-to-day management for advancing that vision. The Obama administration has taken two and a half years to more or less endorse that vision while demonstrating an equal deficiency in in the conduct of its policies. - Kori Schake

Here's my question: why even "endorse the vision" that our interests and values align in the Middle East? Why not treat the American people - and, indeed, the world - like adults and try to explain the basis for U.S. policies in the region? The president made a passing attempt at framing U.S. strategic interests in the region - terrorism, oil, Israel - in the beginning of the speech, only to drown it out in a lot of Wilsonian sanctimony. But a speech discussing the convergence of American values and interests in the Middle East that did not have a single word - not one - about Saudi Arabia, and only passing mention of the Gulf states, is self-evidently dishonest.

American "values" are clearly, and frequently, subordinate to strategic interests in the Middle East. No one can seriously deny this - nor is it something to necessarily be ashamed of! Rather than trying to dress this up in a lot of flim-flam, why not tackle it head-on? Why not explain to the U.S. and the world that in some places the U.S. cannot simply support "democracy" when it does not know what will spring forth from that democracy or that the U.S. has much more urgent needs to attend to - such as protecting Israel and ensuring the stability of the Saudi monarchy?

And if this is a message that Washington doesn't believe will go over well, but is nonetheless not inclined to actually change those offending policies, why not keep quiet? Consistently saying one thing and doing another is a formula for not being taken seriously. The Chinese, I suspect, are going about their business in the Middle East much the same way, but unlike America, they are not embarrassing themselves in the process.

May 5, 2011

Foreign Policy Distractions

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In the course of disparaging the Bush administration's handling of bin Laden at Tora Bora, Jacob Stokes praises President Obama's ability to multitask:

In contrast, President Obama – while managing the uprising in the Middle East, the war in Afghanistan and a government on the brink of shutdown – could have been too distracted to pay attention to what were surely incomplete intelligence reports saying the CIA had located bin Laden. He could have followed the advice of members of Congress and put the U.S. in the lead of the war in Libya, which would have occupied a significant portion of the national security apparatus’s attention. All of those things could have taken President Obama’s eye off the goal of capturing bin Laden. This opportunity could have been squandered.

This doesn't sound all that plausible to me. First, Libya is a fairly large distraction in its own right - it's not an Iraq-style debacle by any means, but it certainly reflects poorly on the administration's decision-making process. (For instance, where was Hillary Clinton yesterday - Islamabad? Nope, she was in Rome, trying to rescue the Libyan intervention.) Second, no matter what was going on, if CIA personnel walk into the Oval Office and say they think they know where bin Laden is living, any president is going to stop what he or she is doing and pay attention.

I think Stokes is a lot closer to the mark to say that casualty aversion was the prime culprit at Tora Bora.

(Photo credit: Pete Souza)

May 4, 2011

Should Obama Have Captured bin Laden?

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This morning, both John Yoo and Michael Barone hit on the same points I hit on Sunday in more thorough detail. Barone essentially outlines the framework of a political attack on Obama for moving away from his prior promises, but I think, as Barone seems to, that such an attack would be blunted by the fact that Obama ended up closer to the country's center. Only the leftward side of his base dislikes these moves with any intensity, and it's doubtful they'd cast a vote for anyone other than him in 2012.

Besides making the same point, Yoo makes the interesting argument that one side-effect of Obama's embrace of the Bush-era policies he once opposed is a greater willingness to kill terrorists as opposed to capturing and interrogating them. He outlines an argument for why Obama should've considered a capture instead of a kill:

Mr. Obama's policies now differ from their Bush counterparts mainly on the issue of interrogation. As Sunday's operation put so vividly on display, Mr. Obama would rather kill al Qaeda leaders—whether by drones or special ops teams—than wade through the difficult questions raised by their detention. This may have dissuaded Mr. Obama from sending a more robust force to attempt a capture.

Early reports are conflicted, but it appears that bin Laden was not armed. He did not have a large retinue of bodyguards—only three other people, the two couriers and bin Laden's adult son, were killed. Special forces units using nonlethal weaponry might have taken bin Laden alive, as with other senior al Qaeda leaders before him.

If true, one of the most valuable intelligence opportunities since the beginning of the war has slipped through our hands. Some claim that bin Laden had become a symbol, or that al Qaeda had devolved into a decentralized terrorist network with more active franchises in Yemen or Somalia. Nevertheless, bin Laden was still issuing instructions and funds to a broad terrorist network and would have known where and how to find other key al Qaeda players. His capture, like Saddam Hussein's in December 2003, would have provided invaluable intelligence and been an even greater example of U.S. military prowess than his death.

White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said Monday that the SEAL team had orders to take bin Laden alive, "if he didn't present any threat," though he correctly dismissed this possibility as "remote." This is hard to take seriously. No one could have expected bin Laden to surrender without a fight. And capturing him alive would have required the administration to hold and interrogate bin Laden at Guantanamo Bay, something that has given this president allergic reactions bordering on a seizure.

Mr. Obama deserves credit for ordering the mission that killed bin Laden. But he should also recognize that he succeeded despite his urge to disavow Bush administration policies. Perhaps one day he will acknowledge his predecessor's role in making this week's dramatic success possible. More importantly, he should end the criminal investigation of CIA agents and restart the interrogation program that helped lead us to bin Laden.

Yoo's argument is probably the best that can be made, philosophically, on this point. But there's little question in my mind that Obama made the right decision. Osama bin Laden is more valuable to the future interests of the United States - and as a statement about our approach to enemies - not as a captured target, legal controversy and living symbol, but as a corpse in the bottom of the sea.

(AP Photo)

April 27, 2011

Leon Panetta's Challenge at Defense

The choice of Leon Panetta to head the Defense Department is not surprising. In fact, I really wish I could've put money on it in Vegas earlier this month. It's making the best of a bad situation in terms of potential nominees - the best candidates for filling the key administration position under President Obama didn't seem particularly eager to do so, and the candidates who did seem to want the job all had negatives.

About to turn 73, Panetta is older than Bob Gates, and while a seasoned D.C. hand, he's been commuting for years to his home in Monterey, Calif. But his challenges in taking over DoD could not be greater. He's coming in at a sour moment, when Afghanistan and Libya hang in the balance. Gates, always popular with the troops and respected on Capitol Hill, is leaving after setting the Department on a solid track toward internal reform - but also after publicly criticizing the president's ham-handed and unexpected demands for further cutbacks. Pressure from Congressional factions is coming from a half-dozen directions, frustration from the president's base threatens to explode, and Panetta's tenure at the CIA was marked by several failures in management - the Christmas Day bomber and more. From Politico earlier this month:

Two of the biggest mistakes came in December 2009, 1 months [sic] after Panetta was sworn in. On Christmas Day, a Nigerian man, Umar Abdulmutallab, allegedly attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight approaching Detroit. White House and Congressional investigations faulted the CIA for failing to quickly pass on intelligence about Abdulmutallab, to connect reports on the suspect and to correctly search for his name in databases.

“There were a lot of mistakes that led up to that guy being able to get on the plane,” said Thomas Kean, a former New Jersey governor and co-chairman with Hamilton of the Sept. 11 Commission. “The CIA was in that loop. Whether it ever got to Panetta’s level, I don’t know, but it was definitely a problem.”

Five days after the Detroit attempt, a suicide bomber who had been cultivated by the CIA as an informant killed seven agency operatives at a base in Khost, Afghanistan. It was the deadliest attack on CIA personnel in more than two decades, and was seen as a major operational failure.

More recently, the CIA was criticized for not providing adequate warning that unrest in Tunisia was likely to bring down the government there and would spark a popular upheaval in Egypt and foment public disturbances across the Middle East and North Africa.

Even though he's a better fit for this role than he was at CIA, it is hard to see how Panetta will navigate this treacherous scene. Unlike Gates, who still had the fire in the belly for his tasks under George W. Bush and Obama and seemed happy to wait on his long-awaited retirement to the Pacific Northwest, one wonders if Panetta will not be all the more eager for Monterey after a few months in the Pentagon.

Obama Official: We Did Not Want to Side With Iran Protesters

In response to Ryan Lizza's must-read piece on Obama's foreign policy for the inclusion of several jaw-dropping anecdotes, Elliott Abrams offers a series of devastating critiques. One in particular stood out to me:

Many critics have argued that the Obama Administration seemed annoyed when Iranians rose up in June 2009 after the elections there were stolen. It appeared that the President was set on engagement with the ayatollahs, and was not at all pleased to see Iranians demanding freedom. Now we have it from someone who served in the Administration: “The core of it was we were still trying to engage the Iranian government and we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters.” In the annals of American human rights policy, the phrase “we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters” will hold a special place of dishonor.

This is indeed disturbing. Abrams notes a later quote, where “One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’”

It strikes me that if a critic of the President had so described his foreign policy, that critic would be accused of sarcasm and disrespect. But as Lizza writes, that summary “does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding.”

This word, "leading" - I do not think it means what you think it means.

April 25, 2011

Obama's Foreign Policy

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I'm just getting started on Ryan Lizza's big piece on the Obama administration's foreign policy, but this bit jumped out at me from the opening:

One of Donilon’s overriding beliefs, which Obama adopted as his own, was that America needed to rebuild its reputation, extricate itself from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and turn its attention toward Asia and China’s unchecked influence in the region. America was “overweighted” in the former and “underweighted” in the latter, Donilon told me. “We’ve been on a little bit of a Middle East detour over the course of the last ten years,” Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said. “And our future will be dominated utterly and fundamentally by developments in Asia and the Pacific region.”

So what has the administration done during its first years in office? Well, they launched a major effort to rekindle Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, surged tens of thousands of additional troops into Afghanistan (while quietly moving out the timeline for withdrawal to 2014), escalated military strikes in Pakistan and jumped into the middle of Libya's civil war.

For an administration intent on refocusing American foreign policy away from the Middle East and "unwinding" America's wars, they sure seem to have gone about it in a strange way.

(AP Photo)

April 7, 2011

The 2012 Republicans and Libya

Scott Conroy's piece at RealClearPolitics on Newt Gingrich includes a reference to a video the former speaker claims justifies his position shifts on Libya. I've criticized Gingrich in the past for shifting on this, so it's only fair to include the counter-argument.

I'll admit I rarely watch the programs he's featured on in this video, so given a fuller context, I see how the shift is tied to Obama's remarks on March 3 - at least according to Gingrich's exploratory committee:

Gingrich said at that time that he could not support using the U.S military for a strictly humanitarian intervention. His message has been clear and consistent. Prior to March 3rd, he would not have intervened but used other means to defeat the dictator, but after the president’s March 3rd statement, he said that only reason to use our military force was to get rid of Qadaffi. He has maintained that position.

Regardless of what you think of Gingrich's shift - and there's no question there was a shift, it's just a question of whether it was a policy inconsistency, or a response to shifting facts on the ground and at the White House - it's worth noting that Gingrich is virtually alone in offering an intelligent commentary on the Libya situation among the potential Republican candidates for 2012. This may be one more example - there are many in the past on domestic politics - of Gingrich being penalized for being too much of a policy wonk, too specific in his arguments where others stick to pat generalities.

The statements from most of his potential foes are nearly all simple negatives: don't use ground troops, don't cater to the United Nations or the Arab League, don't do whatever it is Obama is doing. Tim Pawlenty did exactly this, though at least he has the excuse of doing it first. Mike Huckabee talked in vague terms about a need for an American presence, but does not specify how that will stop any of the killing of citizens he of course deplores. Haley Barbour embarked on what the Wall Street Journal tagged as a "glib trope to the isolationist left." Michele Bachmann gave a response which was just as isolationist, again without offering a solution. All of these individuals are actively engaging the national media - it's absurd that Mitt Romney, by all accounts the Republican frontrunner, thinks he can give a speech slamming Obama's foreign policy and then deliberately avoid reporters' questions on the most pressing foreign policy issue of the day.

Perhaps worst of all, it is profoundly disturbing that Mitch Daniels, a darling of the intellectual right, has as far as I can tell been completely silent on the matter - just as he has been nearly entirely silent on every foreign policy issue over the past several months. His comment in response to a question on Egypt in January was simply jaw-dropping: "I don't have a lot to say about it. I'm just a provincial governor out here." This is fine if one is interested in staying a provincial governor, but it is an unacceptable dodge from anyone interested in becoming Commander in Chief.

This has to concern anyone on the right who thinks the presidency demands an intelligent and sophisticated foreign policy approach if the mistakes of the Obama presidency are to be avoided. It's one of the reasons someone like John Bolton is likely to embark on a quixotic run, simply to ensure there's someone who understands the world outside our borders on stage in Iowa. Rather than just a litany of bullet points, perhaps Barbour, Daniels, Romney and others can just say "pass" and cede their time to candidates who are actually paying attention to the matter. Unfortunately, they won't be able to do this if they ever sit in the Oval Office.

April 6, 2011

Dept. of Odd Excuses

Victor Davis Hanson is unhappy with the Obama administration's approach to the Middle East. I agree with Hanson that the approach has been ad-hoc, but this bit jumped out at me:

Obama turned his back on a million protesters in the streets of Tehran, with bizarre promises not to “meddle,” coupled with vague apologies about American behavior more than a half-century ago. A golden opportunity to help topple a vicious anti-American theocracy was turned into a buffoonish effort to appear multiculturally sensitive.

Er, no. What does "multicultural sensitivity" have to do with it? President Obama kept mum because he thought interjecting the U.S. into Iran's uprising would do more harm than good. You can agree or disagree with that reasoning - but it was the reasoning. "Multicultural sensitivity" had nothing to do with it.

April 5, 2011

The U.S. as the Soviet Union

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Gideon Rachman draws a striking analogy:

Like the USSR in 1989, the US chose the honourable option in refusing to let its regional ally stay in power through force. But, like the Russians, the US now has to worry that it will sacrifice power in a traditional sphere of influence. American officials know that they risk losing friends and endangering economic and security interests in an emerging Middle East that they barely understand. After the fall of Mr Mubarak, a senior US official was heard to lament: “But we do everything with Egypt. Who do we work with now?”

I think it's obvious that the U.S. is going to lose some influence in the region as more democratic societies emerge (if they emerge). But that's not necessarily a bad thing - presiding over a status quo in which you're resented as a meddling, imperial power isn't sustainable and in any event isn't really necessary. Oil is sold on an open market and Middle Eastern states don't need to like us to take our money.

But that is not the approach the Obama administration is taking. Instead, according to David Sanger, they're viewing all events in the Middle East through the prism of containing Iran - a country that is a negligible military power already beset by internal fissures. That means that any democratic aspirations in states, like Bahrain, that could enhance Iran's power must be crushed, while those that have only a tenuous connection to Iran, like Libya, can be championed.

Unfortunately, there's no evidence to date that the Obama administration has any finer grasp on Middle East micromanagement than previous U.S. administrations.

(AP Photo)

April 4, 2011

President Obama's National Security Polling

Not as good, according to a new poll from Rasmussen:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of Likely Voters shows 37% give the president good or excellent ratings on his handling of national security issues. Slightly more voters (40%) say the president is doing a poor job when it comes to national security. (To see survey question wording, click here).

Last week, just after his decision to get involved in Libya, 43% gave the president positive marks for his handling of national security, while 34% rated his performance as poor.

Positive marks for the president on national security are now at their lowest level since he took office in January 2009. His poor rating is the highest measured since last August. One year ago, 45% gave the president positive ratings on national security, while 32% rated the job he was doing as poor.

March 30, 2011

Smart Power

The Obama administration is engaged in a fierce debate over whether to supply weapons to the rebels in Libya, senior officials said on Tuesday, with some fearful that providing arms would deepen American involvement in a civil war and that some fighters may have links to Al Qaeda. - New York Times

It truly beggars belief that we're even having this conversation. Read the end of the above sentence again: we're contemplating giving weapons to fighters who may have links to al-Qaeda. What could possibly go wrong?

This is the same administration that is trying to unwind a war against a group of fighters who were the recipients of American arms two decades ago!

March 28, 2011

Obama's Speech

President Obama offered a very strong humanitarian case for American intervention in Libya. The crux:

It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right. In this particular country - Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi's forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and - more profoundly - our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

It seemed clear throughout the speech that the president put significant emphasis on the fact that there was a coalition (however small) and UN imprimatur on America's military action. Many critics will no doubt pounce on this as proof of President Obama's one-world liberalism, but I think it's his way of wiggling out of any precedent setting doctrine with respect to Libya. It's rare indeed to have the UN and the Arab League join hands to endorse military action against a Middle Eastern state. Obama is probably betting that the multilateral stars won't align like this again, thus sparing him the need to act if other regional despots go on their own murderous rampages.

But what of American policy going forward? Here's what he had to say:

Of course, there is no question that Libya - and the world - will be better off with Gaddafi out of power. I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means. But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.

The task that I assigned our forces - to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger, and to establish a No Fly Zone - carries with it a UN mandate and international support. It is also what the Libyan opposition asked us to do.

This is eerily similar to President George H.W. Bush's justification for not marching into Baghdad: too many risks and beyond the scope of the coalition. I think Obama is right not to send troops marching into Tripoli to unseat Gaddafi, but pledging to remove him through "non military means" sets up a possible stalemate in Libya and a long-term U.S. commitment to regime change. And the last thing a cash-strapped U.S. needs at the moment is yet another Middle Eastern regime to contain.

March 25, 2011

False Presumptions and Obama's War

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Whether you're a neoconservative or a paleoconservative opinion writer, you can easily make the same mistakes when it comes to evaluating the formation of policy - particularly if you have no background in that line of work. Such is the case this week with Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post and Daniel Larison at The Week, both of whom seem to be taking profoundly exaggerated views of the role of President Obama in shaping the current response in Libya.

Wars tend to be defined by the president who's in power at the time. But it's important to remember that wars don't merely occur at the whim of the president, nor are they always prosecuted by his design. The president is not a battlefield strategist - he evaluates the options presented to him by those who work under him (or, as one might say, "I was elected to lead, not to read"). Presidents don't answer an open-ended test in these situations - it's multiple choice, with the potential solutions outlined by those underneath them.

That's why in this case, I think the U.S. role in the conflict in Libya is not necessarily a reflection of Obama's Ivy League values or professorial attitude, as Krauthammer maintains - nor is it a purposeful "hybrid of the worst traits of the wars of George W. Bush and Tony Blair" as Larison argues. The truth of the matter is that the incoherent nature of America's policy toward Libya is not a sign of a direct fault with Obama the man. His "Ivy League values" aren't reflected in the way the United States has approached Libya any more than his knee jerk rejection of the policy doctrines of George W. Bush as a candidate have informed it.

Instead, I think those flaws are a degree away from the problems we're seeing in the administration's approach. They are weaknesses, known for some time internally, now being made apparent publicly in the inconsistent approach of the White House.

The signs are clear of an administration bickering with itself and its allies about which direction to take. As Karen Tumulty writes, "part of the confusion comes from the fact that the administration has shifted over the past weeks - from resisting military action, to leading the first assault, to positioning itself to hand over control to its partners. That seems to have left almost no one satisfied. Those who were urging Obama from the start to charge in - neoconservatives on the right; humanitarian interventionists on the left - say he dithered too long. Those who warned against yet another incursion into the Muslim world, particularly in a country where U.S. interests are limited, say he has been reckless."

Yet the distinction here is important: this halting, uncertain stumbling toward a poorly thought-through military engagement is a sign of Obama's failing as a Chief Executive, not as a Commander in Chief.

Continue reading "False Presumptions and Obama's War" »

March 24, 2011

Gingrich's Flip Flop on Libya

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Newt Gingrich is doing himself no favors with this flip flop on Libya, but it's an instructive moment for other Republicans on the problem with being reflexively anti-Obama. Here's the situation:

On March 7, the former Speaker of the House and likely 2012 presidential candidate told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren that his response to Libya would be swift and unilateral. “Exercise a no-fly zone this evening,” he said.

“I mean, the idea that we’re confused about a man who has been an anti-American dictator since 1969 just tells you how inept this administration is,” he continued. “They were very quick to jump on Mubarak, who was their ally for 30 years, and they were confused about getting rid of Gaddafi. This is a moment to get rid of him. Do it. Get it over with.”

Now that Obama has taken that step and established a no-fly zone in conjunction with UN allies, Gingrich has changed tacks.

“I would not have intervened,” he told Matt Lauer on The Today Show Wednesday. “I think there are a lot of other ways to affect Gaddafi. I think there are a lot of other allies in the region that we could have worked with. I would not have used American and European forces.”

He criticized Obama for changing the designated purpose of the mission. “The president said on March 3, ‘Gaddafi has to go.’ Well they’re now saying this is a humanitarian intervention, which is nonsense. If this is not designed to get rid of Gaddafi, then this makes no sense at all.”

“This is about as badly run as any foreign operation we’ve seen in our lifetime,” he added.

Gingrich’s spokesperson Rick Tyler, explained that this was not the flip-flop that it might seem. Rather, he said, Gingrich’s response changed because Obama’s proposed mission had changed. “The Speaker has been consistent,” he told The Daily Caller. “The president has changed his mind.”

Gingrich explains his position further in a Facebook post, but I have a hard time seeing this as anything other than a flubbed situation. It's one thing to say "I support an NFZ right now, and not later, because later is too late," but that doesn't seem to be Gingrich's argument on the Today Show. Instead, the criticism seems to have shifted simply because "the president changed his mind."

I basically agree with Gingrich's latter position, as I understand it: Removing Gaddafi has to be the focus of any mission in Libya (with the U.S. in either an active or supporting role), and that a coalition-based "humanitarian involvement" is just another pointless, vague and demanding enterprise which has little promise of long term success. But if he only arrived at this position primarily because Obama shifted his own view, that's a rather dubious path to figuring out foreign policy.

(AP Photo)

March 23, 2011

Obama's Phony Realism

In accepting the Nobel prize, President Obama declared that military force was justified on humanitarian grounds and that the defense of human rights was in the national interest. Now he has set the precedent of waging war for third tier interests beyond the narrow scope of national security. In so doing, he has compromised the nation's security interest in non-proliferation. The key lesson that states like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia will draw from the military intervention in Libya is to keep a nuclear development program if you have one and go get one if you do not. One has to believe that Qaddafi is now tormenting himself at night with the question: "Why did I ever agree to give up my WMD programs? - Marc Sheetz

This plus a surge of troops for nation building in Afghanistan certainly doesn't suggest an administration interested in off-shore balancing. And seemingly no amount of national indebtedness or strategic over-stretch can persuade them otherwise. Some realist.

March 18, 2011

Regime Change & Moral Obligation

For realists, I would love to hear how doing nothing in Libya was going to help U.S. security interests. Having an oil-rich pariah state that could very well return to supporting terrorism and wreaking havoc in the region would be disastrous, creating Iraq part 3 and making it more likely we'd have to intervene sometime further into the future, at much greater cost and consequence. Did we not learn from the quelched Shia uprisings of 1991? Or from standing by idly (or supporting) the military coup that ended Algerian democracy in 1991? - Shadi Hamid

From where I sit, it looks like we're moving precisely in the direction Hamid says he wants to avoid. Gaddafi is already an international pariah. If the U.S. simply adheres to the letter of the UN Resolution, which limits international action to protecting Libyan civilians but does not commit to regime change, Gaddafi may hang on, effectively partitioning Libya much as Iraq was split following the first Gulf War. In such an environment, it's quite likely that Gaddafi will turn to terrorism to seek revenge against his rivals.

In other words, unless we are willing to see that Gaddafi is overthrown or removed in short order, we are replicating the dangerous stalemate that prevailed in the 1990s with Iraq. It's quite possible that Gaddafi sees the forces arrayed against him and folds like a cheap suit (here's hoping). In that case, the no-fly zone and other Western and Arab League military operations could proceed quite smoothly, and the rebels could take the country and sort out a new political order with minimal bloodshed going forward. But it would be irresponsible to simply assume that Gaddafi will knuckle under - which means that either the "coalition" forces his removal or embarks on an open-ended mission to "contain" Gaddafi to Tripoli and whatever other territory his forces now control.

And as for America's security interests, it seems to me the over-riding security interest of the United States is to safeguard the lives and resources of its citizens and to put both on the line only when either are gravely threatened. Libya hardly meets such a standard, and if we insist that it does, then there are numerous countries that would demand American military intervention; starting with Yemen, Bahrain and Sudan.

What's more, it would be nice if those making moral demands of the White House recognize that the administration has far more powerful and fundamental moral obligations to the resources and security of the citizens in the country it was elected to serve than it does to citizens in other countries.

March 14, 2011

Foreign Policy as Emotive Cheer-Leading

To understand how the U.S. can be led into a civil war with no relevance to its national security interests, it's useful to observe the reaction to recent testimony from the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

To recap: when asked about the status of fighting in Libya, Clapper said that a stalemate would eventually produce a victory for the Gaddafi regime.

This provoked a firestorm of criticism from lawmakers and pundits, angry that Clapper told them something they didn't want to hear. It even provoked push-back from the Obama administration's national security team, who were apparently unhappy with a "reality-based" assessment.

But, as Daniel Drezner observed, the job of an intelligence analyst isn't to cheer on one side in a conflict. It's to provide an assessment of the situation. And anyone reading the news in the past few days would surely see that Clapper was merely echoing the headlines pointing to a sharp deterioration in the rebels' position. A foreign intervention notwithstanding, the present trajectory appears to favor Gaddafi.

That this acknowledgment is verboten in Washington and, dispiritingly, inside the Obama administration is a pretty good indication that the U.S. is lurching toward another intervention in the Middle East.

March 4, 2011

Libya & the CNN Effect

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Paul Miller makes a very important point:

The administration looks to me like it is being driven by the CNN effect. Libya is in the headlines, dramatic events are afoot, so the administration believes it must do something, it must act, probably to demonstrate resolve, or exercise leadership. It isn't leadership to let the media drive your foreign policy. If the exact same thing were happening right now in Equatorial Guinea, no one would care and we would not be contemplating a no-fly zone.

The administration is blundering into an unnecessary crisis, setting unrealistic expectations about our ability to drive events in Libya, and exposing itself to the dangers of unplanned escalation and mission creep. If we're to have a grand strategy centered on building the liberal democratic peace -- which is not a terrible idea -- it should start from more considered reflection, not lurching overreaction to a crisis over which we have little control.

It's worth pointing out that the administration is being goaded into this course of action by U.S. lawmakers too, not just journalists. But Miller is right: no core U.S. interests are at risk in Libya. The administration is going to be criticized no matter what it does, but far better to be assailed for inaction (or as I prefer to describe it, restraint), then to act recklessly.

(AP Photo)

March 2, 2011

America's Allies Want America's Nukes

By Elbridge Colby

The FT reports today that the White House has disavowed the reported statement by Gary Samore, NSC non-proliferation czar, that the United States would redeploy shorter-range nuclear weapons to South Korea if Seoul requested them. (Cold War-era U.S. tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from the Peninsula in 1991.) The story is interesting on a number of levels, not least because this is a fairly anemic denial: it states only that Washington “has no plans or intention” to redeploy them, has the effect of signaling to Pyongyang, Beijing, Tokyo and others that such a move is not beyond the pale. This is doubly so because it comes on top of earlier murmurs from Seoul seeking consideration of redeployment.

Just as interesting, though, is how the story reflects what has been a dormant but looks to be a reemerging dynamic: the push by U.S. allies to gain more visible and, to some, more credible manifestations of a U.S. nuclear commitment. Ultimately, a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon, whether it is on the ground in South Korea or somewhere thousands of miles away on a submarine or ICBM. But there has long been a perception that “forward-deployed” or “theater” weapons (including not only ground-based but also forward-deployed aerial and sea-based systems) have some value in demonstrating a specific commitment to the countries or areas in which they are deployed. So, back in the Cold War, NATO allies pushed for Washington to maintain nuclear weapons in Europe, weapons that were viewed as more credible for the defense of Europe and essential to linking European and U.S. security.

Today, U.S. allies in Northeast Asia worry about North Korea and the Chinese military build-up. In the Middle East they worry about Iran’s weapons program and regional ambitions. And in Eastern Europe there is concern about Russia’s continued truculence, as well as some reports that have unnerved capitals in the former Soviet Empire. Assuming these disturbing trends don’t all halt and reverse themselves, watch for allies to signal interest and maybe eventually push Washington to put some nuclear forces back to the front.
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Elbridge Colby has served in several national security positions with the U.S. Government, most recently with the Department of Defense working on the follow-on to the START Treaty and as an expert adviser to the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission. The views expressed here are his own.

February 24, 2011

Denouncing Libya

John Podhoretz is upset that President Obama didn't thunderously denounce Muammar Gaddafi:

After days of silence, the president of the United States took to the microphone and, in a statement of almost unbelievable pointlessness, said as little as he could. He condemned the violence, said he was sending Hillary Clinton to Europe, said he had instructed his team to look at all options, and said that the “most basic aspiration” of people was (and here he quoted a Libyan) “to be able to live like human beings.” Crises either elevate leaders or make them look shrunken and unequal to the task history has assigned them. I think there’s little question which of these two categories describes Barack Obama right now.

Daniel Larison offers some needed context, highlighting how the U.S. was unable to get Libya's permission to fly U.S. citizens out of the country:

It’s almost as if the U.S. government has a greater responsibility to its citizens than it does to condemning the activities of a foreign government. In fact, it would be a remarkable display of arrogance and folly to start denouncing Gaddafi’s crimes when U.S. citizens could immediately be exposed to violent reprisals or arrest. It doesn’t seem to cross the minds of interventionists in this case that our government could imperil fellow Americans by following their advice. If official condemnations have to wait a few days or weeks until U.S. citizens in Libya are safely out of the country, that is what a responsible government should do.

February 23, 2011

Obama's Handling of Foreign Policy

The American Enterprise Institute's Political Report rounds up some of the latest polling on President Obama's foreign policy:

How the public feels about Obama's handling of foreign policy:

Jan 2011: CNN/ORC – 57% approve; 40% disapprove
Jan 2011: CBS/NYT – 46% approve; 32% disapprove
Feb 2011: Gallup – 48% approve; 45% disapprove

How the public feels about Obama's handling of the situation in Afghanistan:

Jan 2011: CNN/ORC – 51% approve; 46% disapprove
Jan 2011: AP/GfK – 54% approve; 44% disapprove
Feb 2011: Gallup – 47% approve; 46% disapprove

How does the public feel about Obama's handling of the situation in Iraq:

Jan 2011: CNN/ORC – 56% approve; 42% disapprove
Jan 2011: AP-GfK – 57% approve; 41% disapprove

Polls show that Americans are not enthusiastic about actively promoting democracy abroad. In the latest overview Americans say this about "exporting democracy":

-55% thought that helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations is "somewhat important"
-19% thought it "very important," and
-26% thought it "not important"

Read the whole thing here.

Don't Just Do Something, Stand There

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Bill Kristol wants President Obama to take action in the Middle East:

What exactly to do in each case is complicated; it depends on difficult judgments of facts on the ground. It might be that if more analysts and commentators spent more time trying to figure out what could be done, and less time thinking up clever analogies that allegedly show how things are destined to turn out, or finding ever more reasons any effort on our part is doomed to fail, we might learn that we have more ways to affect events than we now think.

But at such moments we can't depend on analysts and commentators. This is a time when one looks, necessarily, to the president. So far, one looks in vain. What has been strikingly lacking in the Obama administration's response is a sense of the possibility of the moment, a commitment to doing our best to bring that possibility to fruition, a realization that this may be an important inflection point in world history that should shake us out of business as usual.

It seems to me that if you're going to demand action but casually glide over the specifics of what you want done - it's complicated, you see - then you don't have much grounds to criticize. That's not to say there aren't grounds to criticize the administration's handling of the situation, but vague calls to "do something" aren't very convincing.

(AP Photo)

February 16, 2011

Are All Revolutions Good Revolutions?

As other dominoes teeter in the wake of Egypt's recent revolution, U.S. officials should be prepared to respond to a rather dangerous assumption that seems to be taking hold in the media: "all revolutions are now good revolutions."

One bit of knowledge that has emerged from the Egypt storyline is a greater awareness in the West when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood as an active global force, one that is not limited in its influence to the boundaries of Arab nation states. While it's true that they're more active in places like Jordan, where the New York Times estimates they have the support of roughly 25 percent of the population (one reason why King Abdullah II met with them recently), and it's also true that the brotherhood in one nation is not necessarily as radical as it is elsewhere, the overall impact beyond the Middle East has to raise concerns.

The possibility that Brotherhood-backed political leaders will attempt to turn the Egyptian experience into a global rallying cry for revolution certainly bears watching. As we re-evaluate the Cairo Effect in light of Egypt's revolution, one question is whether the United States has devoted too much attention to our engagement with the Islamic world on the Middle East, creating a negative effect in other parts of that sphere. It's possible that President Obama's speech in Cairo had the effect of sending the message that the Arab world is the primary focus of our contacts with Muslims - a message that is unfortunate to say the least, considering that the effect here is hardly limited to the Arab world. Egypt creates an opportunity for opposition political leaders in other Muslim nations to grab hold of the revolutionary experience and deploy it as a talking point in their efforts; even if they inhabit a far more open, transparent, and democratic political system.

Speaking from New York last week, Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim tried to do exactly this on CNN, following on his argument in the Wall Street Journal. This line sticks out to me as particularly notable on these lines - and it's consistent with the CNN interview:

The bogeyman of Islamism, the oft-cited scapegoat of Middle Eastern dictators to justify their tyranny, must therefore be reconsidered or junked altogether. The U.S., too, should learn a lesson about the myth that secular tyrants and dictators are its best bet against Islamists. Revolutions, be they secular or religious, are born of a universal desire for autonomy.

The WSJ piece is actually quite good on a number of points, but this line sticks in one's craw. It is particularly concerning to hear such rhetoric go without response - particularly given the possibility that Anwar speaks as someone who received financial support from the Muslim Brotherhood - as it tends to suggest that all political change must come in the form of take-to-the-streets revolt, not as peaceful and gradual reforms.

Continue reading "Are All Revolutions Good Revolutions?" »

Does the World Respect President Obama?

Yes, but not as much as it used to, according to a new Gallup poll:

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Gallup's Frank Newport offers some context:

In February 2009, shortly after Obama's presidential inauguration, a soaring 67% of Americans perceived that the world's leaders respected him. That dropped to 56% last February, and is slightly lower (52%) in this year's Feb. 2-5 Gallup World Affairs survey.

Still, Obama's readings on this measure remain historically high.

A few months after 9/11, Bush received 75% and 63% readings on this respect question -- but all other readings during the Bush administration were below 50%. That includes the low point in February 2007, when 21% of Americans said world leaders respected Bush. Americans' views of world leaders' respect for Obama are also higher than two Gallup measures for Clinton, in 1994 (41%) and 2000 (44%).


February 14, 2011

How's Obama Handling Egypt?

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Some recent polls on the president's handling of Egypt show the public mostly approves of how the administration has conducted itself. A Fox News poll showed 48 percent approval vs. 32 percent disapproval; Gallup had a 47 percent approval to 32 percent disapproval; Pew Research found that 57 percent of respondents said the administration was handling the protests "about right."

(AP Photo)

Did Obama Botch Egypt?

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Niall Ferguson isn't impressed with President Obama's handling of Egypt:

The president has alienated everybody: not only Mubarak’s cronies in the military, but also the youthful crowds in the streets of Cairo. Whoever ultimately wins, Obama loses. And the alienation doesn’t end there. America’s two closest friends in the region—Israel and Saudi Arabia—are both disgusted. The Saudis, who dread all manifestations of revolution, are appalled at Washington’s failure to resolutely prop up Mubarak. The Israelis, meanwhile, are dismayed by the administration’s apparent cluelessness.

Last week, while other commentators ran around Cairo’s Tahrir Square, hyperventilating about what they saw as an Arab 1989, I flew to Tel Aviv for the annual Herzliya security conference. The consensus among the assembled experts on the Middle East? A colossal failure of American foreign policy.

I'm not clear why Ferguson is citing Saudi Arabia and Israel here. Ferguson insists in the piece that Obama should have jumped into the Egyptian revolt on the side of the protesters and the democratic wave - which is the antithesis of what both the Israelis and the Saudis wanted.

I do agree with Ferguson that no matter who "wins" in Egypt, Obama is the ultimate "loser" since the basic presumption appears to be that the president of the United States is omniscient and omnipotent - and that any outcome in another country that fails to satisfy our desires is naturally his fault.

(AP Photo)

February 10, 2011

Obama's Global Zero (Not So Much)

According to proliferation expert Henry Sokolski, the Obama administration is seeking nuclear deals with Jordan and Saudi Arabia that would eschew needed safeguards:

What is truly flabbergasting, though, is the fact that the Obama administration seems willing to accede to both Jordan’s and Saudi Arabia’s demands. At almost exactly the same time Egyptian protestors were filing into Tahrir Square on January 25, a highly respected arms control news service reported that the U.S. government was discussing nuclear deals with Jordan and Saudi Arabia which would not include the “gold standard” safeguards that the Obama administration has demanded from other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to ensure that nuclear cooperation is less likely to enable nuclear proliferation. In specific, these deals lacked any requirement that Saudi Arabia or Jordan forswear making nuclear fuel or ratify a new, tougher nuclear inspections regime known as the IAEA Additional Protocol.
It's early still in the Egyptian crisis, but it's not hard to see how a democratic Egypt could potentially develop a weapon of its own on the usual grounds that it lives in a rough neighborhood with one nuclear state near its border and Iran on the cusp. As Sokolski notes, Cairo has already "made several haphazard attempts to get a bomb." Good times.

February 2, 2011

U.S. Views on Obama's Egypt Policy

Not too bad, according to Rasmussen:


A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 41% of Likely U.S. Voters rate the way the Obama administration has responded to the situation in Egypt as good or excellent. Twenty-two percent (22%) view the administration’s response so far as poor. ...

Most Americans expect the unrest in Egypt to spread to other Middle Eastern countries and think that will be bad for the United States. But a sizable majority also believe the United States should stay out of Egypt’s current problems.

January 16, 2011

Obama's Israel Hatred

The New York Times reports on another egregious example of the Obama administration coddling America's enemies while throwing a close ally under the bus:

By the accounts of a number of computer scientists, nuclear enrichment experts and former officials, the covert race to create Stuxnet was a joint project between the Americans and the Israelis, with some help, knowing or unknowing, from the Germans and the British.

The project’s political origins can be found in the last months of the Bush administration. In January 2009, The New York Times reported that Mr. Bush authorized a covert program to undermine the electrical and computer systems around Natanz, Iran’s major enrichment center. President Obama, first briefed on the program even before taking office, sped it up, according to officials familiar with the administration’s Iran strategy. So did the Israelis, other officials said.

January 11, 2011

Remembering Cairo

Over at the Washington Examiner, I have a piece on Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, which raises several questions about the ramifications of President Obama's Cairo speech in 2009:

As wise observers know, oftentimes the choices made within the context of America’s engagement in the Middle East are limited to a decision between supporting clearly repressive regimes and allowing the vilest enemies of democracy and freedom to triumph — a choice in which the good is absent, and you are left with the bad and the ugly. Such is the situation in Egypt today. The recent election doesn’t pass the smell test — as Stephen McInerney, director of advocacy for the Project on Middle East Democracy, told the Weekly Standard, the Mubarak regime wasn’t “even making an effort to look good.”

Yet this repressive situation is not without justification — namely, the likelihood that a truly free election would elevate the power base of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were effectively pushed from parliament, left with just a single elected candidate.

[. . .]

This is exactly the kind of thorny foreign policy situation that demands a president with a coherent vision, one that amounts to more than just blandishments about respect and tolerance. If only America had one.

Pejman Yousefzadeh makes an apt point in response:

Of course, no one blames the President for an inability to change the Middle East with one speech. But what continually disappoints is the propensity of the Obama Administration to promise more than they can deliver, simply because both the President and the rest of his Administration appear to be so dazzled by the President’s star power and charisma, that they fail to consider cold hard facts that are impervious to Barack Obama’s personal charm and eloquence. This is an Administration that continues to believe press clippings from 2008, even though it’s 2011, and the press clippings themselves have changed.

This is, of course, not the first administration to fall prey to the trap of thinking that "a speech will solve a problem" with any permanence. But that doesn't make the fact any prettier.

December 28, 2010

The Jonathan Pollard Boomlet

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Another presidency, another push for the release of spy Jonathan Pollard. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama have ignored the entreaties over the years, and I have a hard time seeing why this situation is any different. The current boomlet for Pollard is being advanced by a collection of respectable people - Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post, former George W. Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey and of course Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - but it seems to have little basis in any actual changed information on Pollard's espionage activities in the service of Israel, South Africa and Pakistan.

Martin Peretz, who exists as a figure of permanent controversy (and loving every minute of it!), has come out solidly against the idea of release, writing that President Obama would be "encouraging the kind of ideological blackmail" that we have seen in Middle Eastern politics for decades. Peretz maintains that supporters of Pollard are unintentionally giving Obama an opportunity to offer a small victory to Israel's right wing in exchange for "squeez[ing] Israel on its real security interests which are to guarantee a peace with the Palestinians who do not really want peace."

This may or may not be true. But what is true is that Pollard handed over to Israel secrets which were traded to, or otherwise obtained by, the Soviet Union. As former FBI and Navy lawyer M.E. Bowman writes at the U.S. Intelligence Studies journal Intelligencer, in a piece anyone advocating for Pollard's release really ought to read, Pollard leaked "the daily report from the Navy’s Sixth Fleet Ocean Surveillance Information Facility (FOSIF) in Rota, Spain, a top-secret document filed every morning reporting all that had occurred in the Middle East during the previous twenty-four hours, as recorded by the NSA’s most sophisticated monitoring devices." He also handed over "the TOP SECRET NSA RAISIN manual which lists the physical parameters of every known signal, notes how we collect signals around the world, and lists all the known communications links then used by the Soviet Union."

Typically, this sort of verified espionage ends the conversation about clemency of any kind. So why does Pollard keep popping up as a candidate for such consideration? Bowman leads off his piece by addressing the question of why Pollard's defenders have received so little in terms of public push back:

There have been few rebuttals of this escalation of calls for Pollard’s release. Mainly because so few were cognizant of the scope of Pollard’s disclosures, or the misuses of those disclosures, and the damage they did to our own operations and sources; and even fewer, of the policy implications of these unauthorized releases to a foreign power. Finally, when a plea agreement was reached, it was no longer necessary to litigate issues that could have exposed the scope of Pollard’s treachery – and the exposure of classified systems.

This explanation makes sense. Of course, it will do little to stop the push by Pollard's supporters. Let's see if Obama will ignore them, as Bowman advises, or if he'll use the opportunity to his advantage, as Peretz fears.

(AP Photo)

December 6, 2010

Obama's Approval

Foreign affairs and his handling of Afghanistan remain his (relative) strong points, according to Gallup:

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November 30, 2010

Power & Expectations

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Politico's Ben Smith writes that American power ain't what it used to be:

"The impression is of the world's superpower roaming helpless in a world in which nobody behaves as bidden," wrote Sir Simon Jenkins in the left-leaning Guardian, one of the publications that were given the documents.

And while his assessment of the documents themselves may be too harsh, the massive leak drives home yet again the limits of any American ability to control events around the world.

I think the problem here is the view that the U.S. - or any country - can "control events around the world." Shape? Yes, to a degree. Influence? Sure. Control? Not really. That's a rather grandiose claim and one that, as David Shorr notes, infects too much popular discourse about foreign policy - leading to unrealistic expectations. Like this:

It is certainly true that Obama inherited many of his foreign policy challenges. Iran was pursuing nukes back when he was in the Illinois state Senate, and North Korea has been crazy since before he was born. But Obama insisted that his would be the better way. Engagement, dialogue, kumbaya would all win the day.

And yet they keep losing. A month after his inauguration, the North Koreans tested a ballistic missile. Since then, they've revealed yet another nuclear program and attacked South Korea just weeks after Obama's embarrassing failure to win a trade deal from Seoul during an official visit. Meanwhile, according to WikiLeaks and other sources, the North Koreans have been selling ballistic missiles to the Iranians.

One of the very early and obvious problems with Obama's foreign policy argument dating back to the campaign was that, rather than state the obvious - that some international problems are inherently difficult and "solutions" to them are often impossible to find - he tried to sell alternatives to Republican hawkishness as more effective. As I wrote two years ago:

Any debate about national security is rooted in a perception of American interests. Yet the Obama campaign has not focused much attention on defining what America’s fundamental security interests are – but on how best to manage them. On issues such as Iran and North Korea, the signature difference between the two parties is not over the extent to which these nations represent uniquely American problems (as opposed to regional ones), but the tools with which they propose to “solve” them....

By conceding the premise of American security interests, it’s easy to see why Democrats keep losing the politics. If America is to be the world’s policeman, who is the more credible figure: the state trooper ready to club the bad guys, or the security guard at the mall, brandishing a walk-talkie?

Thus, the baseline for judging the Obama administration remains unreasonable - he hasn't talked Kim Jong-Il out of booze and porn! - and more modest but respectable achievements (imposing sanctions on Iran, improving ties in South Asia) look paltry in comparison. That's not to say the administration has done everything right or that breakthroughs are impossible, just that the talk of American decline often rests on an unrealistic view of what America could achieve even at the apex of her power.

(AP Photo)

November 24, 2010

Brzezinski on Korea

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Writing in the Financial Times Zbigniew Brzezinski offers some advice to President Obama:

The president has to take the initiative. Provocation of this kind cannot be dismissed lightly or left in the hands of diplomats. He should call President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea to reassure him personally and directly of US support. Then he should call President Hu Jintao of China and express serious concern. He should call Prime Minister Naoto Kan of Japan, as America’s prime ally in the Pacific and given its proximity to the Korean conundrum. He should also call President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia. Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, should then follow up on these calls and set in motion convening the United Nations Security Council.

Reaching out to China and the relevant players here is a good idea, but there's a danger in taking "presidential ownership" of a problem of this kind. Like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which the president is currently struggling with, it is unsolvable.

(AP Photo)

November 17, 2010

The Will to Power

What does it mean for global order when the world figures out that the U.S. president is someone who's willing to take no for an answer?

The answer is that the United States becomes Europe. Except on a handful of topics, like trade and foreign aid, the foreign policy of the European Union, and that of most of its constituent states, amounts to a kind of diplomatic air guitar: furious motion, considerable imagination, but neither sound nor effect. When a European leader issues a stern demarche toward, say, Burma or Russia, nobody notices. And nobody cares.

If the U.S. were to become another Europe—not out of diminished power, but out of a diminished will to assert its power—there would surely never be another Iraq war. That prospect would probably delight some readers of this column. It would also probably mean more fondness for the U.S. in some quarters where it is now often suspected. Vancouver, say, or the Parisian left bank. And that would gladden hearts from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side. - Bret Stephens

There's a few points to make here. The first, and most obvious is that it is because of Iraq that U.S. power (let alone "will") has taken the kind of hit that Stephens finds so objectionable. Champions of that war - far more than the Obama administration - are responsible for any declines in American power. I can't speak for the Parisian left bank, but for someone who wishes to see the U.S. retain its power long into the future, avoiding peripheral wars of choice that degenerate into trillion dollar boondoggles seems to be a prerequisite.

But what of Stephens' core charge - that Obama has embraced "multipolarity" as the organizing principle of the world and is thus ceding the globe to disorder and insecurity as the U.S. pursues a "European" foreign policy? First, it rests on fantasied rendering of American power and second, a caricature of the current administration.

Stephens would have us forget the years 2004-08, but none of the Bush administration's various diktats were met with sharp salutes and dutiful obedience from international miscreants like Iran and North Korea. The U.S. took "no" for an answer from all the same corners that the Obama administration is taking "no" from - not because of incompetence or lack of will, but because their objectives were difficult and because they had dug themselves a deep hole in Iraq.

As for the Obama administration, it's not clear that they've become "European" in their foreign policy outlook - if by European Stephens means dovish. They've escalated both the wars in Afghanistan and the aerial war inside Pakistan and they are extending America's counter-terrorism campaign inside Yemen. This may be insufficiently robust for Stephens but any honest reading of the record wouldn't confuse this with "European" passivity (incidentally that charge is somewhat slanderous in its own right considering how many Europeans are dying alongside Americans inside Afghanistan).

November 15, 2010

Trade Objections

For years, Democrats have insisted that they support free trade provided there were labor and environmental protections baked into any deal. Yet it appears that's not quite the case, at least when it comes to the environment:

Korea used to be one of the most protected automobile markets in the world. But it has gradually done away with most of the high tariffs and import restrictions that shut out foreign cars and trucks. An 8 percent tariff on cars and a 10 percent tariff on trucks remain, but the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement would remove them immediately with respect to U.S. cars and trucks. As for our own markets, the ratification of the agreement would require us to immediately remove a 2.5 percent tariff on Korean cars, but would give us ten years to phase out a 25 percent tariff on Korean trucks. So it seems like Detroit is getting the better of this deal. What’s not to like?

Here’s the punch line: U.S. automakers, their unions, and their allies in government -- including most Democrats and Barack Obama -- think Korea’s fuel-economy and environmental standards are too high. They are arguing that these standards act as a non-tariff barrier to cars and trucks made in U.S. factories, because, gosh darn it, we just don’t make cars and trucks that clean and green over here.

You can read background on the U.S.-Korea trade negotiations here.

November 12, 2010

American Exceptionalism, Ctd.

And as officials frenetically tried to paper over differences among the Group of 20 members with a vaguely worded communiqué to be issued Friday, there was no way to avoid discussion of the fundamental differences of economic strategy. After five largely harmonious meetings in the past two years to deal with the most severe downturn since the Depression, major disputes broke out between Washington and China, Britain, Germany and Brazil.

Each rejected core elements of Mr. Obama’s strategy of stimulating growth before focusing on deficit reduction. Several major nations continued to accuse the Federal Reserve of deliberately devaluing the dollar last week in an effort to put the costs of America’s competitive troubles on trading partners, rather than taking politically tough measures to rein in spending at home. - New York Times

What's all the fuss? President Obama's just being exceptional!

Obama in Iraq

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Since shortly before the Iraqi elections nearly eight months ago, there has been a low but steady chorus urging the Obama administration to micromanage Iraqi politics to ensure an outcome favorable to U.S. interests. The conceit - as espoused by people like the Brookings Institute's Kenneth Pollak - was that the U.S. could (quietly, of course, and oh-so-cleverly) help to pick and choose political winners inside the country to ensure Iraq developed in a way favorable to the United States.

The president apparently took that advice to heart:

Last Saturday, Mr. Obama phoned Mr. Talabani and asked him to give up the seat he has held since 2005 so that Mr. Allawi could be Iraq's president, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials familiar with the diplomacy. Mr. Obama on Saturday also urged the president of the Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani, to accept Mr. Allawi in the role of the presidency.

Since late summer, U.S. officials had been trying to get Mr. al-Maliki and Mr. Allawi to share power in the government because neither man's party won the majority of votes. But Mr. al-Maliki's Rule of Law party ultimately formed an alliance with the Kurds and another Shiite bloc with ties to Iran known as the Iraqi National Alliance.

Qubad Talabani, Mr. Talabani's son and the Washington representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government, said the Kurds were disappointed with the United States.

"As the deadlock continues, Iyad Allawi has said the only post he wants is prime minister or president. The Americans have come to us and have asked us to step aside and relinquish the post of president to Iraqiya and specifically to Iyad Allawi, which we find very disappointing," he said.

The Kurds are generally regarded as the most pro-American faction inside Iraq, and if they're not interested in helping out the U.S. then it's safe to conclude that no one else will either.

(AP Photo)

November 10, 2010

No Plan B

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It's difficult to know what to make of this news:

A White House review of President Obama's Afghanistan strategy next month will judge "how this current approach is working" but will not suggest alternatives if aspects of the policy are found to be failing, a senior administration official said Tuesday.
So if a policy is deemed to be failing in Afghanistan, the administration plans to continue that policy regardless?

(AP Photo)

November 9, 2010

Jacksonians & Afghanistan

Michael Gerson sees "Jacksonian" Republicans making trouble for President Obama's foreign policy:

Even without a developed tea party foreign policy, the center of gravity on Capitol Hill is likely to shift in a Jacksonian direction. Historian Walter Russell Mead describes this potent, populist foreign policy tradition as "an instinct rather than an ideology." Today's Jacksonians believe in a strong military, assertively employed to defend American interests. They are skeptical of international law and international institutions, which are viewed as threats to American sovereignty and freedom of action. Jacksonians are generally dismissive of idealistic global objectives, such as a world free from nuclear weapons. Instead, they are heavily armed realists, convinced that America operates in an irredeemably hostile world. In particular, according to Mead, Jacksonians believe in wars that end with the unconditional surrender of an enemy, instead of "multilateral, limited warfare or peacekeeping operations."

But then he writes:

But the largest test case will be Afghanistan. Here Obama faces a rare challenge. His base of support for the Afghan War lies mainly in the opposing party, making Republican attitudes toward the war decisive. As Obama's July 2011 deadline for beginning the withdrawal of American troops approaches, any hint of civilian-military divisions on strategy could dramatically erode Republican support. Jacksonians like to win wars. But if Obama appears reluctant, they could easily turn against a war the president does not seem determined to win.

This doesn't make sense. In the prior graf, Gerson insists Jacksonians don't like "multilateral, limited warfare or peacekeeping operations." That's precisely what we're doing in Afghanistan. If anything, a spike in Jacksonian sentiment would lead to an erosion in support for an open-ended commitment to nation-building in Afghanistan, which is what the conservative defense establishment believes is necessary to secure American interests.

Indeed, a Jacksonian turn in the GOP would probably horrify Gerson who, along with his former boss, President Bush, is a purveyor of "idealistic global objectives" such as ridding the world of tyranny.

November 3, 2010

Will Congress Support America's Wars?

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Kori Schake believes the Obama administration will find at least some support for its war policies in the newly empowered GOP:

But the president is not going to carry liberal Democrats on the wars whether or not he sticks to his politically-driven 2011 drawdown. "Ending combat operations" in Iraq has not been the improvement in security the president promised, as Tuesday's bombings sadly illustrate, and the president can ill afford such an outcome in "the good war." Liberal disaffection was less a problem for Democrats than the stampede of independents to the right; moderating his timeline to achieve the objectives of the war would likely appeal to them.

I'm not so sure that's the case. The war in Iraq has been deeply unpopular with a majority of Americans for years now, including independents. Support for the war in Afghanistan is similarly declining and there's no indication that independents would welcome a presidential commitment to never leave the country victory.

Indeed, while the conservative defense establishment remains enthusiastic about the prospect of transferring more American wealth to Hamid Karzai and his various hangers-on, any serious effort to repair the American balance sheet will have to take a cold, hard look at the scope of the commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps that's why the GOP's Pledge to America eschewed any high-sounding rhetoric about winning in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(AP Photo)

November 2, 2010

Can Obama "Go Small?"

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If he's smart on this one (and I think he is), the president will keep his head, his rhetoric, and his ambitions small. He isn't going to find much solace and refuge in the world of Hamid Karzai, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Hamas and Hezbollah. He can't (and won't) withdraw from this world, but he now also knows he can't remake it either. Gone are the transformational ambitions of nation-building, grand bargains, and comprehensive peace. What's left are more in the way of downsized transactions: managing, not resolving conflict; contracting, not expanding the U.S. role in them; and just plain getting by, or in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, getting out. - Aaron David Miller

There's some indication that Miller is onto something. It can be found in an admission in this piece by C.M. Sennott from the State Department's Anne Marie Slaughter: "What's unique about this approach is that it starts with domestic strategy ... We have to rebuild our own foundation ... We believe passing health care legislation is as important as prosecuting the war in Afghanistan."

The administration has talked itself into rhetorical knots a bit - proclaiming at every turn that it is still devoted to the Cold War-era ideal of American global leadership while subsequently trying to define that leadership down. Unfortunately, the administration can't "go small" (in Miller's words) if it continues to endorse the idea that only America stands between an orderly world and Hobbesian chaos.

(AP Photo)

October 28, 2010

An Offer Iran Can Refuse

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David Sanger reports that President Obama is going to make Iran a less generous nuclear deal than the one they've already turned down. The theory seems to be that the pinch of the new sanctions regime is sharpening minds in Tehran and that any successive offer from the West would be even worse, so they'd better get while the getting's good.

I suspect this approach isn't going to work - and it sounds like the Obama administration is already gearing up for it to fail. According to Sanger:

Two years into office, Mr. Obama has organized an impressive sanctions regime and managed to combine diplomacy and pressure better than many experts had predicted. But so far he has little to show for it, which has prompted a discussion inside the White House about whether it would be helpful, or counterproductive, to have him talk more openly about military options.

I'm skeptical that they'll actually use force, but it would monumentally ill-advised to begin threatening it without an internal agreement in the administration to follow through. Repeatedly invoking the threat of military force without the intention to use it will make the administration appear feckless if Iran - as is widely expected - refuses to knuckle under.

It will also be interesting to see whether in this, our era of supposed Constitutional revival, those preaching an affinity for the U.S. Constitution demand that President Obama seek a Congressional declaration of war against Iran before any bombing runs commence.

(AP Photo)

October 27, 2010

Obama's Iran Attack Calculation

George Friedman speculates that Obama may launch an attack on Iran following a drubbing at the polls next week:

Iran is the one issue on which the president could galvanize public opinion. The Republicans have portrayed Obama as weak on combating militant Islamism. Many of the Democrats see Iran as a repressive violator of human rights, particularly after the crackdown on the Green Movement. The Arabian Peninsula, particularly Saudi Arabia, is afraid of Iran and wants the United States to do something more than provide $60 billion-worth of weapons over the next 10 years. The Israelis, obviously, are hostile. The Europeans are hostile to Iran but want to avoid escalation, unless it ends quickly and successfully and without a disruption of oil supplies. The Russians like the Iranians are a thorn in the American side, as are the Chinese, but neither would have much choice should the United States deal with Iran quickly and effectively. Moreover, the situation in Iraq would improve if Iran were to be neutralized, and the psychology in Afghanistan could also shift.

If Obama were to use foreign policy to enhance his political standing through decisive action, and achieve some positive results in relations with foreign governments, the one place he could do it would be Iran. The issue is what he might have to do and what the risks would be. Nothing could, after all, hurt him more than an aggressive stance against Iran that failed to achieve its goals or turned into a military disaster for the United States.

Friedman does an able job running down the costs and benefits of such an attack. One of the reasons I think it's unlikely is the same one Friedman notes at the start of his piece: Obama is a domestic president and the economy's health (or lack thereof) is his paramount concern. A prolonged spike in oil prices following large scale hostilities in the Persian Gulf is not exactly what a fragile economic recovery needs.

It's also hard to square the idea of President Obama agreeing to a strike on Iran when it's clear he is eager to unwind America's conflicts in the region.

A Kissinger for Obama

Raoul Heinrichs hopes for one:

With his foreign policy foundering, Obama should have taken the time to find his Kissinger, an adviser with an intuitive understanding of American interests and priorities, a realistic appreciation for the scope and limits of power, and sensitivity to the consequences that actions might be expected to produce.

It's become a very American thing, especially in the post-Cold War era, to conceive of the world in terms of a succession of universal problems to which the US must offer a solution. Yet this approach hasn't worked. It's been costly, ineffectual and indiscriminate. By systematically overestimating the willingness of others to acquiesce to American solutions, it has also engendered in US foreign policy a debilitating level of incoherence.

October 12, 2010

Obama & Eisenhower

Will Inboden has an interesting post comparing the two:

While both presidents commissioned major strategic reviews upon taking office, Eisenhower's "Project Solarium" assessed the U.S. grand strategy for the entire global Cold War, in contrast to Obama's strategic review(s) of just one theater: Afghanistan-Pakistan. An accurate analogy would be if the Obama White House had done such a strategic review of the entire Global War on Terror (other than just giving it a new acronym). The Obama administration instead largely adopted wholesale the Bush administration's strategic framework for the war on jihadist terrorism: pre-emptive attacks, holding states accountable for terrorist actions, renditions, law-of-war detainees, support for reformist and peaceful Muslim leaders, and promoting governance and development as long-term antidotes to Islamist ideology.

I'm not sure if the Obama administration has embraced the "holding states accountable" paradigm (and in truth, President Bush didn't either, as such a standard would have plunged the U.S. into many more ground wars) but in general, the administration has indeed refrained from a wholesale overview of American strategy with respect to Islamic terrorism. But why?

September 27, 2010

Oops

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Even in the world of diplomacy, there are times when language has to be clear and unmistakable – like after a flag is mistakenly displayed in a way to imply there is a state of war.

The Philippine flag was displayed upside down behind President Benigno Aquino III when he met with President Obama and other leaders of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations on Friday. - Los Angeles Times

(AP Photo)

September 23, 2010

The GOP Pledge and Iran

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Picking up on Greg's post, it seems as though the GOP's "Pledge to America" is rather slim on foreign policy altogether. As an American voter, I actually find this appealing; domestic politics should be the focus of the 2010 elections, and kudos to the Republicans - if this leaked version of the party's 2010 electoral strategy is accurate - for making those issues their central focus.

That said, the foreign policy news junkie in me is somewhat disappointed in the dearth of red meat offered in this plan. It also begs a question: with all of the huffing and puffing we have heard - and indeed continue to hear - from conservatives about Obama's "appeasement" of Iran, are these same critics thus satisfied by a short and simple pledge to enforce "tough sanctions against Iran"?

I believe this demonstrates just how easy it is to be one of the two main political parties on the outs in the United States. Ideological rigidity, or, in the specific case of Iran, radical statements about preparing for a regime change, make for good soundbites and exchanges on the Sunday morning shows, but they don't resemble, as far as I can tell, the actual Republican plan for governance regarding the Islamic Republic - and that's a good thing.

All this could change, of course, in 2012 . . .

(AP Photo)

September 9, 2010

America in Retreat?

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Danielle Pletka argues that Hillary Clinton's address yesterday marks a major retreat from world leadership:

Clinton declares, “For the United States, global leadership is both a responsibility and an unparalleled opportunity.” She then proceeds to describe what amounts to an abdication of American leadership—the international version of “honey, I love you so much and believe so much in our marriage that I want to work to help you be a better husband, teach you how to clean the house, and help you come to the understanding that you’re a deadbeat.” At home, this is called burden sharing, but usually it means “I want to do less.” And that is Clinton’s message to the world: America wants to do less.

Leave aside the question of whether this is what the Obama administration is in fact doing. What I want to know is why this is so terrible: why shouldn't other nations do more?

(AP Photo)

September 7, 2010

Playing into Bin Laden's Hands

Upset that President Obama wants to curtail America's costly and open-ended commitment to nation building and counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, Marc Thiessen invokes a letter from bin Laden outlining his strategy for bleeding America in a long insurgency, to argue in favor of.... staying and bleeding:

The talk of withdrawal was damaging, but this pivot to domestic priorities was the most dangerous part of Obama's speech -- because what our enemies heard was that their strategy to defeat America is working. In a letter to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, uncovered by coalition forces in 2002, Osama bin Laden explained that the way to get the United States to quit Afghanistan is to convince Americans "that their government [will] bring them more losses, in finances and casualties." As this message takes hold, bin Laden told Mullah Omar, it will create "pressure from the American people on the American government to stop their campaign against Afghanistan." Bin Laden calls this his "bleed until bankruptcy" strategy, and he has expressed confidence it will work, because the Taliban and al-Qaeda possess something that President Obama clearly lacks -- strategic patience. As bin Laden explained a 2004 video, time is on his side: "We . . . bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat. . . . So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah." What bin Laden heard last Tuesday was that the "bleed until bankruptcy" approach is having its intended effect. America, bin Laden heard, has tired of the costs of war and is beginning to pull back -- first from Iraq and eventually from Afghanistan -- so we can focus on rescuing our teetering economy.

I am assuming Thiessen is citing this account of al-Qaeda files discovered in Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban fell. From that, it's clear that the U.S. played rather directly into bin Laden's hand (particularly in Iraq) - getting itself stuck in large, conventional ground wars with insurgent forces that dragged on for years. We played to their strengths, and not ours. And, as bin Laden predicted, it has been costly. Even if you don't accept the $3 trillion-plus figure floated by Joseph Stiglitz over the weekend, the costs in blood and treasure have been steep.

Look, I'm no Sun Tzu, but usually when your enemies express a desire for you to do X, shouldn't you avoid doing X?

September 2, 2010

Public Opinion

As an addendum to the back-and-forth with James Kirchick as to the quality of public opinion in the Arab world (which he deems, not entirely incorrectly, often ignorant and paranoid) I commend to you this:

More than half of Republicans surveyed in a new Newsweek poll believe that President Obama supports the proliferation of Islamic law worldwide: 14% of Republicans said Obama definitely "sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world," while an additional 38% think he probably does. And—the poll question that just won't die—some 24% of all survey respondents believe that Obama himself is a Muslim.

August 31, 2010

A Few Forgettable Points from Obama's Speech

President Obama's speech last night will not be quoted anywhere. It was neither memorable nor newsworthy, it made no grand point, and it was constructed in such a way as to be dismissed by both the right and the left. In fact, it's a reminder that the statements Obama has made in his first term have thus far been, on the whole, completely forgettable to the average American. For a man so lauded for his speaking ability and the craft of his writers, the memorable lines are few and far between: his oft-repeated stump-speech on health care probably contains the lines most Americans know, since they included a raft of promises. Looking back, it is his speech in Cairo and his speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize which most commenters would probably consider the critical remarks from this term.

Yet in taking the opportunity to share a few thoughts with us on Iraq - to "turn the page" as he said - the president left us wanting. For the right, he highlighted his insistent wrongness on the tactical response to the Iraq War during his brief tenure in the Senate; for the left, he highlighted what they believe to be his insistent wrongness in applying a similar tactical response to the war in Afghanistan. So both sides complain, no one cherishes, and a key foreign policy moment is passed by - the big news story from the White House today was all about the president speaking from an Oval Office with a fresh coat of beige, not the remarks. It is, in my view, a missed opportunity.

The way the White House presented the speech was schizophrenic to begin with - another communications failure in a long stream of misread optics and poorly chosen words. Robert Gibbs provides an example of how to fail to properly represent the Commander in Chief - clearly the weakest member of Obama's internal team, and one I fully expect to be gone in the aftermath of the midterm elections, Gibbs flailed mightily today, misquoting his boss's views from 2007 and ignoring questions about Obama's shift in opinion on strategy. He urged reporters to check out the facts about what Obama had said in the past, perhaps without checking them himself (Obama in January 2007: "I don't know any expert [who believes surge] is going to make a substantial difference." Obama in June 2007: "Here's what we know: the surge has not worked.") -- or if he did check, it was blatant incompetence to make such a claim of consistency.

Politicians never like to say they're wrong about anything, and never like to admit they've changed their views. But when that mistake is so apparent and evident, it's silly to be stubborn about it. Obama's perspective on foreign policy has clearly shifted over the past two years, and he should readily admit that fact. Because he refuses to, it creates scenarios like this, a year and a half ago:

Q: If you had to do it over again, knowing what you know now, would you support the surge?

Obama: No. Because, keep in mind that —

Q: You wouldn’t?

Obama: Keep in mind, these kind of hypotheticals are very difficult. You know hindsight is 20/20. But I think that what I am absolutely convinced of is at that time we had to change the political debate because the view of the Bush administration at that time was one I just disagreed with.

President Obama's approach to foreign policy has been better than many on the right expected, and has improved in several areas since he made those remarks. Great leaders recognize their own errors as they come, and respond to them by learning and adapting, not fighting the battles of the past. Obama had been a senator for barely 12 months when he spoke out so forcefully against the surge - in his role now, and going forward, Americans need to be confident he has learned from the experiences of the recent past, and takes that knowledge with him as he faces challenging decisions. They need to know he approaches policy with a clear vision about what he wants to achieve -- that he is not just, as Greg put it, hedging his bets.

It is one thing to be wrong about a strategic policy when you are just one senator out of a hundred. It is another when you are the one man who matters, and the lives of a great many American soldiers hang in the balance.

Benjamin Domenech, a former speechwriter for Tommy Thompson and Sen. John Cornyn, is editor of The New Ledger and a research fellow with The Heartland Institute. He writes on defense and security issues for The Compass.

Why Isn't It a "Mission Accomplished" Speech?

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It seems that the spin from the Obama administration is that tonight's Iraq address won't be akin to President Bush's now infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech delivered a few months after the Iraq war began. While it's understandable why the president would want to distance himself from that bit of botched political theater, I'm not clear why the administration is making this instance. (Actually, I know why they're doing it, to please a constituency, but I don't see the logic in it.)

Without knowing the full text of the address, you can say for certain that the president is not making good on his campaign pledge to "end the war." The troops being left behind in Iraq to "advise and assist" will take casualties. If the president insists that he will withdraw all "advise and assist" forces after 2011, irrespective of conditions on the ground, then you could say that the administration is making good on its pledges. But during the campaign, Obama insisted that the U.S. would be as careful leaving Iraq as we were careless getting in - and indication, to me at least, that he's hedging his bets.

So I have a hard time believing that the president is going to truly withdraw forces from Iraq in 2011 "come what may" which makes tonight's speech, if not dishonest, than less-than-forthright. But I could be wrong, and President Obama could insist that no matter what, U.S. forces will be removed from Iraq in 2011. Such a stance wouldn't necessarily be a bad idea (that's a debate for another day), but it would mark a sharp departure from conventional thinking with respect to U.S. interests in the Middle East. And the president hasn't really demonstrated that he's truly "thinking outside the box" when it comes to those strategic issues.

(AP Photo)

The View from the Anglosphere

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Angus Reid asked Britons and Canadians what they think of President Obama:

Seven-in-ten Canadians believe the American president deserves to be re-elected in 2012, but under half of Britons agree.

Canadians hold a much more positive view of United States President Barack Obama than Britons, a new two-country Angus Reid Public Opinion poll has found.

In the online survey of representative national samples of 1,010 Canadian and 2,012 British adults, 61 per cent of respondents in Canada say Obama’s performance so far has been just what they expected. Fewer people in Britain agree (51%).

In Canada, 14 per cent of respondents say Obama’s performance has exceeded their expectations, while 18 per cent say they have been disappointed by it. In Britain, these perceptions sit at 13 per cent and 23 per cent, respectively.

Three-in-ten Canadians (30%) say the American president has accomplished much since his term started in January 2009. But only 12 per cent of British respondents agree with this assessment. And while only 15 per cent of Canadians think Obama has achieved little, this proportion rises to 25 per cent in Britain.

A large proportion of people in both countries (CAN 48%, BRI 54%) say it is too early to judge Obama’s accomplishments.

I'd certainly endorse that last sentiment.

(AP Photo)

August 17, 2010

A Hollow Military?

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Arthur Herman is worried that Secretary Gates is poised to "re-hollow" the U.S. military. The piece is anchored in a somewhat odd conceit:

In a world in which the use of conventional armed force is no longer the last resort but instead an almost unimaginable option (unless the law of inertia is involved, as it was in Obama’s decision to continue in Iraq and Afghanistan), it’s no wonder that the Pentagon’s fleets of warships, tanks, fighters, and bombers have come to seem an expensive luxury—not to mention this nation’s overwhelming nuclear arsenal. Obama foresees a steadily shrinking role for American military force, and Gates finds himself cast as the man to make it happen.

I'm not sure what world Herman is talking about, because in the real one the use of armed force by the United States is a common place. As John Mearsheimer noted in his lecture about the rise of China, "America has been at war for 14 of the 21 years since the Cold War ended. That is 2 out of every 3 years."

Far from a last resort, the military is a tool that has been used routinely since the fall of the Soviet Union. And this is what's troubling about the Gates' cuts - not that they'd leave the U.S. dangerously exposed (they won't) but that Washington will make cuts while simultaneously insisting on maintaining an activist foreign policy, with an unnecessarily sweeping view of what America's core interests are. That would indeed attenuate our strength at a time when we should be shepherding it.

(AP Photo)

August 12, 2010

U.S. Views of Obama's Foreign Policy, Ctd.

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Following up on yesterday's Zogby Interactive poll, Gallup has released a new poll that reaffirms that foreign policy remains one of the president's stronger issues (and by strong I mean, not as weak): 44 percent of respondents approved of the president's handling of foreign affairs vs. 48 percent who disapproved. Much like the Zogby poll, disapproval was sharper on the specific issue of Iraq (41 approve vs. 53 disapprove) and Afghanistan (36 approve. vs. 57 disapprove).

(AP Photo)

August 11, 2010

U.S. Views of Obama Foreign Policy

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Zogby Interactive's newest poll won't provide much comfort for the administration. Obama gets his best grade in foreign policy (40 percent positive vs. 51 percent negative and 8 percent 'fair'). Nothing to crow about, of course, but it does call into question why conservatives feel foreign policy is the president's weak spot considering it's where the public has the least negative views.

On one of his major foreign policy challenges, Afghanistan, the numbers are worse: 25 percent have a positive view of the president's performance vs. 40 percent who have a poor view and 34 percent who have a fair view.

August 5, 2010

Arab World Down on Obama, Up on Iran's Nukes

The Brookings Institution is releasing a new survey of Arab public opinion today. Some of the findings (pdf):


Early in the Obama Administration, in April and May 2009, 51% of the respondents in the six countries expressed optimism about American policy in the Middle East. In the 2010 poll, only 16% were hopeful, while a majority - 63% - was discouraged.

On Iran's potential nuclear weapons status, results show another dramatic shift in public opinion. While the results vary from country to country, the weighted average across the six countries is telling: in 2009, only 29% of those polled said that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would be "positive" for the Middle East; in 2010, 57% of those polled indicate that such an outcome would be "positive" for the Middle East.

That's a pretty large swing on the Iran nuke question. Could it be that as more and more Arab leaders come out publicly against Iran's nuclear program, more of their citizens start to support it?

Obama's No-Win Iraq Policy

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Peter Feaver writes that President Obama churlishly denied giving credit to Bush for the surge. Obama, writes Feaver, "could have shown real statesmanship by acknowledging he was wrong about the surge." Then he writes this:

Adverse developments in Iraq will be (and will look to be) increasingly a function of the Obama Team taking their eye off of the ball and rushing to declare mission accomplished. Yes, in such a scenario the Iraqis should bear most of the blame, but the part that is due to U.S. action or inaction will be Obama's responsibility.

In other words, when it becomes undeniable that the surge has failed to produce anything other than momentary calm in Iraq, it will become Obama's fault. Convenient, isn't it?

(AP Photo)

July 27, 2010

WikiLeaks and the COIN Consensus

Andrew Exum, writing in the pages of today's New York Times, shrugs at the WikiLeaks brouhaha:

ANYONE who has spent the past two days reading through the 92,000 military field reports and other documents made public by the whistle-blower site WikiLeaks may be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. I’m a researcher who studies Afghanistan and have no regular access to classified information, yet I have seen nothing in the documents that has either surprised me or told me anything of significance. I suspect that’s the case even for someone who reads only a third of the articles on Afghanistan in his local newspaper. [Emphasis added - KS]

But is this really the case? "Move along, nothing to see here" certainly appears to be the consensus from the media and the policy community, but this is an incredibly small (albeit vocal) sample size of Americans. Broader survey data paints a slightly different picture of the American public's war understanding - one which is more confused, critical and mixed about the U.S. mission and prospects in Afghanistan.

I agree with Exum that much of the information revealed in the leaks was common knowledge to the commentariat and the think tankers, but I wonder if the same can be said so unequivocally of the greater public. Would support for the war radically change if, for instance, the American public better understood the Pakistani intelligence community's relationship with a co-conspirator in the 9/11 attacks? What about that aid package Washington just handed to Islamabad?

Exum would have us all believe that the WikiLeaks disclosures are both ho-hum and irresponsible journalism. Both may be true, but if there's been any kind of journalistic failure here it began not with WikiLeaks, but with the pundits and policy makers who have failed to enhance public understanding of the war. There was no need for such debate and education however, because a bipartisan consensus had already congealed around a counterinsurgency strategy.

Exum accuses WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange of being an activist with an agenda, which is no doubt true. But is Assange really the only one with an agenda here, or does his agenda simply not sit well will the COINdinistas?

July 20, 2010

The (Odd) Wilsonian Case for Bombing Iran

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Walter Russell Mead believes that President Obama's Wilsonian streak will lead him to attack Iran:

If solemn treaties, sacred oaths and decades of patient diplomatic effort can’t stop the spread of nuclear weapons, what can international law really accomplish? What is the Security Council except an exalted talking shop if it can’t summon the unity and the resolve to act effectively in the face of a naked challenge to one of the foundations of international order? If global institutions can’t solve this problem, how can such weak and unpredictable organizations be trusted with any urgent and vital problem? If the treaty on non-proliferation is essentially a dead letter, what treaties still command respect? If countries only obey treaties as long as they want to, and the international system can take no effective action against those who break its most important laws, what becomes of the Wilsonian dream?

I'm trying hard to understand if Mead thinks it's a bad idea to fight a war on behalf of this starry-eyed Wilsonianism, or whether he thinks it's a good one. And in any event, this argument strikes me as rather unpersuasive. Barring a fairly dramatic turn of events, a U.S. war on Iran would not occur under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council and would not be seen by anyone around the world as an effort to uphold the strictures of the Non Proliferation Treaty. You can't have a war to uphold international law if the war itself is in violation of international law or is otherwise not sanctioned or legitimized by international bodies.

Mead is right that international legal regimes cannot prevent Iran from going nuclear. The United Nations Security Council is toothless. But unilateral military action doesn't suddenly bolster the UN or the NPT, it only emphasizes their irrelevance. Did the Iraq war suddenly breath new life into the Security Council or Non Proliferation Treaty? No. Were Obama to rest his case for a strike against Iran on the necessity of saving these various international treaties and institutions - when few other countries that are a party to them would sign on - he would look ridiculous (that's not to say he won't do it, if Wilsonianism has proven good for anything, it's for dressing up a flimsy case for war).

(AP Photo)

July 14, 2010

Parsing Obama's Rhetoric

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Using a new search engine developed by the Washington Post, Steve Clemons analyzed Obama's speeches to divine which countries get regular mention:

From January 1, 2009 until July 12, 2010, Barack Obama mentioned Afghanistan in 70 major speeches and commentaries. Afghanistan leads among all nations in the FP failed state index.

China follows with 58 mentions. Then Iraq from the failed states line-up with 54. India beats Iran with 46 mentions to 43. North Korea scored just 19 even though it has nukes, sank a South Korean ship, and tests more ballistic missiles than virtually any other country.

Pakistan, which also has nukes and ranked No. 10 on the FP Failed States Index, got 17 mentions.

Interestingly, Israel and Palestine had nearly the same number of tags in key speeches and comments - 19 for Israel and 17 for Palestine.

Clemons adds:

This quick check of Obama statements shows a President and his team mostly focused on rising powers and key problematic powers.

Overall, there is still a systemic dearth of attention to the states that are doing the worst and sliding into failure.

The distraction of Afghanistan and Iraq is palpable - while the perceived need to manage US-China relations appears paramount.

Should we care about a "systemic dearth of attention" to failed states? I don't think so, for reasons elucidated well by Paul Staniland here. There's only so much an administration can do. Better to get China right.

(AP Photo)

July 7, 2010

The Dangers of Democracy Promotion

Daniel Larison runs down the dangers of democracy promotion:

Another danger is that this emphasis on democracy promotion conflates U.S. interests in a region with the aspirations of other peoples to govern themselves democratically when these two may not be complementary. Most enthusiasts for democracy promotion seem rarely to contemplate the possibility of such a conflict between the political goals of democrats in other countries and U.S. policies, and there usually seems to be a casual assumption that American interests and “values” advance in tandem. Much of the sympathy for the Green movement in the U.S. is predicated on two basically false beliefs that most Green movement members want to topple their government and want to adopt policies more amenable to the U.S. Many Western sympathizers with the Green movement would suddenly start singing a very different tune if they understood that neither of these things is true.

A related problem with the discussion of democracy promotion is that it's gotten increasingly wrapped up in partisan politics. We now hear commentators routinely damn the administration for failing to vigorously spread freedom - or at least, pay obsequious lip service to the idea that that's what the president should be doing. But as a partisan criteria, it's absurd. Even if you had an administration that was seriously committed to spreading democracy, it's not something that happens overnight. I think all but the most blinkered Wilsonian will acknowledge that building a true, durable democracy takes years, if not decades, of patient institution building. Moreover it's a cooperative effort: if the "host" nation isn't interested, it doesn't matter what the U.S. federal government does.

While I don't think the U.S. should play a role in armed democracy promotion (a view that very few people actually hold), or cynically retreat to the rhetoric of democracy promotion as a cover for advancing other interests (a view with a much larger constituency), I do think the U.S. can and should lay the groundwork for a more peaceful, liberalizing international order. But as Leslie Gelb argued in Power Rules, that will be accomplished via economic integration - something where the administration's critics do have legitimate grounds to criticize.

July 6, 2010

What's Obama Biggest Foreign Policy Blunder?

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Jennifer Rubin asks in the spirit of partisan attack, but I think it's a valid question on its own right. My provisional instant-answer would be his embrace of a larger scale nation building effort in Afghanistan, followed by the decision to push for a Mideast peace settlement. What does everyone else think?

(AP Photo)

June 29, 2010

Americans Favor Afghan Timetable

According to Gallup:

A majority of Americans (58%) favor President Barack Obama's timetable that calls for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan beginning in July 2011. Most of the 38% of Americans who are opposed reject the idea of setting any timetable rather than setting one with an earlier or later date.

A further 7 percent want out sooner, while 1 percent think it should start later. As for President Obama's handling of the war:


The poll finds 50% saying Obama is doing a "very good" or "good" job, while 44% believe he is doing a "very poor" or "poor" job. Democrats give Obama high marks on Afghanistan, while Republicans mostly say he is doing a poor job.

A new Angus Reid poll also found support for President Obama's decision to junk General McChrystal: 53 percent supported the decision, 28 percent disapproved and 18 percent were unsure. Full results here. (pdf)

June 23, 2010

McChrystal and the COINdinistas

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Analyzing the potential outcomes of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's termination, COINdinista extraordinaire Andrew Exum concludes that:

In the end, your opinion on whether or not Gen. McChrystal should be dismissed might come down to whether or not you think the current strategy is the correct one for the war in Afghanistan. My own prediction is that Gen. McChrystal will be retained. As much as critics of counterinsurgency like to blame Gen. McChrystal (and nefarious think-tankers, of course) for the current strategy, the reality is that the civilian decision-makers in the Obama Administration conducted two high-level reviews in 2009 and twice arrived at a national strategy focused on conducting counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. I suspect the president will not replace the man he has put in charge of executing that strategy with just 12 months to go before we begin a withdrawal.

I suspect Exum is probably correct, but I don't know that one's position on COIN must necessarily determine their verdict on the general. Frankly, I read the Rolling Stone piece, and I found most of the stuff - while no doubt in violation of some military etiquette regulations - to be somewhat benign; the kind of water cooler griping that goes on inside every organization. Of course McChrystal erred in his media judgment, and I'm agnostic really on his fate, but I don't know, as Exum notes, if firing him makes sense while the country is so invested in his strategy.

And that's really the problem here. As Spencer Ackerman rightly points out, there's a kind of irony to this whole hubbub: while there's plenty of debate to be had over McChrystal, we mustn't expect too much debate over McChrystal's strategy. The White House has already reiterated its commitment to COIN in Afghanistan, and that, to me, is the end of the story. Though I take more of a realisty position on the war there, I don't know that demanding my pound of flesh makes much of a difference here.

Exum mistakenly assumes that anti-COIN = anti-McChrystal, but I think any critic of COIN would expect these kinds of internal flareups and frustrations when one country attempts to occupy and subsequently engineer the society of another. Power struggles; civilian vs. military personnel; arguments with the host government; bruised egos and hurt feelings over leaked memos and misplaced quotes; etc. This stuff seems par for the course.

Were there an actual debate about options in Afghanistan, then maybe you'd see more of an analytical uprising from the anti-COIN camp, but that debate had already been settled by COIN advocates long ago. Take this argument from Blake Hounshell, for example:

The thing is, though, it's not as if there is a viable alternative strategy out there. For years, the U.S. more or less tried Vice President Joe Biden's preferred approach of keeping a light footprint and limiting U.S. military operations to going after bad guys, while de-emphasizing nation building. That didn't work either. So I think it's worth giving COIN more time to succeed, whether or not McChrystal is the man implementing it.

There are actually a multitude of options in Afghanistan, but none of them will ever appear viable so long as we cling to an amorphous definition of "victory" there. To my recollection, what the Bush administration did in Afghanistan was not at all "light footprint," but rather, under-resourced occupation. They wanted to keep troop casualties low, but they also wanted to pacify the country. They pushed for elections, but then provided no sustainable security arrangement to actually guarantee a democratic Kabul's legitimacy.

This policy - which even the Bush administration would later scrutinize - is not what Biden had proposed last fall. His suggestion was to contain Afghan radicalism, draw down forces and continue drone strikes on militant targets throughout the greater Af-Pak region. If you support such a strategy (as I do, albeit reluctantly), then you certainly aren't concerned about dressing Afghanistan up as a functional democracy, because it clearly isn't one.

But critics can't live in a counterfactual dream world where the White House actually engages the public in a serious debate over the War on Terror, because that moment has passed. While we all question the job security of one general, we should at least, in fairness, congratulate the COINdinistas for what appears to be a vise-like grip on U.S. foreign policy thinking.

(AP Photo)

June 21, 2010

Obama's Unpopular in the Middle East!

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Heritage's Helle Dale looks at the recent Pew Survey on international attitudes of the U.S.:

The one exception to these glowing attitudes is the Middle East, the centerpiece of the Obama foreign policy thrust when the president came into office. In major foreign policy addresses, such as the Cairo and the Ghana speeches, Mr. Obama presented much “hope and change,” but has so far failed to produce any measurable results. As a result, publics of largely Muslim countries continue to look at the United States in negative light. In both Turkey and Pakistan, two U.S. allies, only 17 percent hold a positive opinion. In Egypt, America’s favorability rating dropped from 27 percent to 17 percent – the lowest percentage since 2006 when the surveys were first done.
I was under the impression that this was a mostly liberal line of criticism - that the Arab world remained unmoved by Obama's charm offensive because he hasn't actually changed much of what they dislike about American policy in the region. If Obama had undertaken policies that the Arab world broadly approved of, wouldn't Dale & company be outraged?

(AP Photo)

June 18, 2010

Letting Others Lead on Iran

Benjamin Kerstein has an interesting piece in the New Ledger on the Obama administration's approach to Iran. In it he asserts that the Obama administration "appears to have decided to take no military action against the Iranian nuclear program, nor even to support or encourage – publicly or discreetly – the Iranian popular opposition to the Ahmadinejad regime."

But this isn't actually true. As Doyle McManus reported:

After initial hesitation, the administration has quietly increased its indirect support for Iran's democracy movement — very quietly, because the U.S. wants to avoid tainting the dissidents with charges of foreign sponsorship. Most of the help has come in the form of increased hours of Persian-language radio and television broadcasting into Iran, and in export permits for U.S.-made software to help Iranians evade their government's efforts to block or punish Internet use.

The second and more substantive issue is the question of whether it constitutes a failure of American leadership if other nations band together to stop Iran. Kerstein writes:

Paradoxically, then, this confluence of interests has at least the potential to overcome the Obama administration’s policy of resignation and successfully avert the Iranian threat. It is impossible, for course, for such disparate interests to band together in any formal way, but a quiet, tacit alliance of convenience – and, perhaps more importantly, fear – is by no means unthinkable. While any military action against Iran will almost certainly be solely Israeli, the lead up to any action and the subsequent fallout will certainly involve many of the parties mentioned above....

The truth is that even a cursory look at the big picture reveals a strong majority of nations whose interests stand to be damaged by the emergence of a hegemonic Iranian theocracy. And the possible negative repercussions of attempting to exploit this confluence of interests appear to pale in comparison to those that will follow Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons. With a little creative diplomacy, this fact can be turned to the advantage of all these nations, but only if they are prepared to move beyond the idea that the United States must take the lead in all such crises.

And this is perhaps the saddest aspect of the entire situation. If the Iranian nuclear program is successfully stopped, it will only be because Barack Obama should have been more careful in wishing for a post-American world. He will have gotten it, but not in the way he would have liked. The tragedy of Obamaism is painfully obvious when one considers that, as long as Obama is president, a nuclear Iran is avoidable only if concerted opposition to it is undertaken without the United States.

Why is this sad? It seems to me to be the desired dynamic: the nations most at risk should be the ones that take the lead and shoulder most of the burden. True, this stands on its head the long-standing presumption that the U.S. taxpayer and soldier must absorb the costs of defending the interests of other nations, but that presumption is a Cold War anachronism. And if it's cracking under the weight of the Obama administration's failing diplomacy, perhaps there's something to be said for failing diplomacy.

June 17, 2010

Obama and American Allies

There has never been much substance to the claims that Obama has been betraying allies in order to “appease” Russia, but then the people making this charge have never really understood what Obama has been trying to do in working with Russia, and many of them have been comically wrong in their assessment of Russian goals. Now that Kyrgyzstan is melting down, it is a good thing that Moscow and Washington have built up enough trust that both our governments can cooperate to limit the damage from the violence that erupted across the south of the country this week.

There are two cases of allied governments being hung out to dry, so to speak, and these are Japan and Turkey. - Daniel Larison

The strange thing about this particular line of criticism against Obama is not that his administration hasn't mishandled allies - they have. As Larison points out, they've fudged ties with Japan for sure and may be botching Turkey as well. The administration has taken some meaningless and thoughtless swipes at Britain, for instance, and the timing (though not the substance) of the announcement of missile defenses in Poland was insensitive.

No, the strange thing is that it's being voiced by many of the same people who positively gloried in the idea of unilateralism when it was a Republican president doing the spurning. They thrilled when Donald Rumsfeld derisively dismissed our core European allies as "old Europe" because they wouldn't toe the American line on Iraq. They exulted in the "Cowboy Diplomacy" of the Bush administration and wore America's alienation from the rest of the world as a sign that the country was doing something right.

Could it be that the champions of American unilateralism have had a change of heart?

June 9, 2010

Kurdistan and the Freedom Agenda

Michael Rubin responds to my take on President Obama's freedom agenda in Kurdistan:

Policy should be not merely reactive, but proactive: The core of the democracy debate is about how to change the character of other countries to the point where our decisions become easier and our final policy more advantageous to U.S. policy and security.

Fair enough, but policy proposals and suggestions abound (see: Washington, DC). The American executive can only do so much, and freedoms backsliding in Kurdistan - again, a region often touted as a model worth protecting - probably can't be too high on the president's priority list. Indeed, it may not even be the the biggest problem facing the United States in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Perhaps there's much to criticize about Obama's so-called freedom agenda, but I don't know that Kurdistan is the best example with which to do that.

UPDATE: Michael has responded with a handful of fair points:

Should we excuse the traditional myopia that afflicts both Democratic and Republican administrations, or should a multi-billion-dollar national-security apparatus be able to handle multiple events in multiple countries at the same time? If we can only handle two or three international issues at a time, why not just hire ten smart people to manage foreign policy and save taxpayers billions?

Or, to reverse Kevin’s argument, why not use our leverage over a Kurdish government that takes our support for granted to demand an end to the murder of journalists and an end to behind-our-backs deal-making with the Islamic Republic, and eliminate an irritant to our regional credibility? Or should we settle for a Barzani dictatorship because that’s the path of least resistance?

Let me, for the sake of clarity, repeat that the politically motivated targeting of journalists is obviously a terrible, terrible thing. President Obama, as Michael argues, absolutely should pressure Iraqi officials to address this. But beyond that, what more should be done? Kurdistan is a relatively stable region in a country where suicide attacks upon American servicemen and women are still commonplace, and the central government's own political stability remains in question. Put it in the proper context, and Kurdistan begins to look better and better.

My point, again, was not that Obama is beyond reproach on democracy promotion, but that Iraqi Kurdistan seems like a rather odd cudgel for that reproach. Of course a president should be able to multitask, but I'd say a two-front war, a global economic crisis, a confrontation with Tehran, a row with Jerusalem, a standoff on the Korean peninsula and a litany of unmentioned domestic items should probably be enough to fill a calendar up, no?

And Michael kids, but which is actually more comical: the unlikely scenario of just ten experts running American foreign policy, or tens of thousands, spread across multiple continents, attempting to "change the character of other countries to the point where our decisions become easier and our final policy more advantageous to U.S. policy and security"? Both are unrealistic, but only one has been the actual foreign policy of the United States in the 21st Century.

June 5, 2010

Let the Eagle Choose

Looking back on the anniversary of President Obama's Cairo speech, Michael Rubin is troubled by the administration's freedom agenda - or lack thereof:

On this, the one-year anniversary of Obama’s Cairo speech, the silence of the Obama administration in the face of backsliding on rights, freedom, and liberty in Kurdistan, Turkey, and Arab states such as Egypt and Yemen, is deafening. In recent weeks, independent journalists in Kurdistan have begun to receive cell phone death threats (as Sardasht did before his murder). When they have gone to security to lodge complaints, the journalists are harassed. It is now only a matter of time until more journalists are whacked. The victims are not insurgents nor violent Islamists, but rather liberals and the best of the new generation. Obama’s inaction is dangerous because, when administration officials like assistant secretary of state Jeffrey Feltman or U.S. congressmen on a junket take their photos with Barzani, cynicism grows about perceived U.S. endorsement dictators; this in turn encourages anti-Americanism.

Many visitors describe their experiences in Iraqi Kurdistan as positive; my twenty-plus trips were. Certainly, Kurdistan shines compared to Baghdad if not, increasingly, Basra. The problem is that, on human rights, stability, and liberty, the trajectory in Iraqi Kurdistan is backwards. [Emphasis my own - KS]

To which Matt Duss retorts:

I don’t disagree with Michael here on the Obama administration’s lack of follow-through on the promise of the Cairo speech, which I’ve found deeply disappointing, or with his concern about the increasing oppression in Iraqi Kurdistan. Nor do I disagree that cuddling up to dictators encourages cynicism and anti-Americanism (though isn’t it interesting how conservatives can make such claims without being accused of “blaming America”?) As you can see from the photo at right (Bush shaking hands with Barzani), Bush himself knew quite a bit about cuddling up to dictators.

I do disagree, however, with his use of “backsliding” here, as if George W. Bush left the region on a pro-democracy trajectory, which he most certainly didn’t.

How about we cut both presidents some slack, and accept the fact that American officials are going to do the occasional photo-op with thugs, dictators and generally bad people? This strikes me as yet another example of American interests and rhetoric being in conflict. The potential to look foolish and hypocritical will always exist so long as the United States is in the business of everyone else's business.

The United States decided back in 2003 that the overall stability of Iraq was a long-term strategic interest in the War on Terrorism, and we've lost thousands of lives and billions of dollars in securing that supposed interest. Indeed, the very idea behind the strategic recalibration known as "The Surge" was to give all of Iraq the breathing room it required in order to become more like Kurdistan.

Can Washington rightfully turn around then and demand that Iraqi Kurdistan be freer-er? Is that consistent with the overall, long-term investment the United States has made in Iraq?

Even setting aside the freedom agenda, at what point must the United States decide that the business of global trade and commerce permits only a limited amount of rhetoric regarding freedom and democracy? Were all of the world's resources conveniently positioned under the world's democracies this wouldn't be so difficult. Sadly, this isn't the case. (Setting aside China's economic growth as compared to our more democratic allies in Europe.)

Take a step back and look at what, where and who the United States is in bed with around the globe, and then tell me that it's the American president's job to prevent journalists from receiving death threats in Iraqi Kurdistan. This is of course a terrible situation, but doesn't our executive have more pressing matters to attend to?

Dictatorships and otherwise isolated regimes have the luxury of rhetorical rigidity. America does not. Interests and rhetoric are colliding, and one may eventually have to give. So which will it be?

UPDATE: Evan Feigenbaum points out how China has its own problems in this area.

May 28, 2010

The Freedom Agenda Revisited

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Thomas Donnelly has some interesting thoughts on the Obama administration's national security strategy:

By contrast, I see a very deep divide between our current president and his predecessor, a fundamental difference of opinion about international politics and even human nature. Simply put, Barack Obama believes progress can be achieved through cooperation among nations through the realm of diplomacy while George Bush believes progress can be achieved despite conflict, which is the realm of armed strength. Both men profess the universality of American political principles, but have divergent views about how to carry American Exceptionalism abroad.

George Bush famously wanted to build “a balance of power that favors freedom.” As a conservative and realist, he understood international politics as a competition for power, as one would expect from creatures fallen from a state of grace. Like Jefferson, he wanted to create an “empire for liberty,” to employ power — paradoxically — to promote freedom.

In the NSS, Barack Obama claims that, “power, in an interconnected world, is no longer a zero-sum game.” Through collective action with other states — not “great powers” but “key centers of influence” — we can achieve “cooperative solutions.” This method appeals in large degree because Obama has a more expansive understanding of “security” — beyond any particular political arrangement, he includes pandemic disease, prosperity and, above all, climate change. Obama wants to build a balance of influence that favors sustainable living.

I think the "balance of influence that favors sustainable living" sounds right. What doesn't is the notion that promoting liberty through armed strength was some kind of central principle of the Bush administration rather than a post-hoc justification for the war in Iraq. In no other country was American power truly leveraged to promote democracy (you can't really count the Palestinian territories because after the disastrous elections there, the Bush administration promptly set about trying to subvert the outcome).

Aside from that, the trouble with the Bush approach was that he had already inherited an international order with a balance that favored freedom. In 2000, the U.S. had no serious great power rival, let alone an ideological or revolutionary enemy capable of over-turning the prevailing international order, and we enjoyed a robust economy paired with a first rate military. In short, there was simply no reason to launch a crusade to "promote freedom" for the sake of American security.

But lets accept Donnelly's contention that the administration sought to promote freedom by employing American power. What were the results? Was America's economic and military power better or worse for the effort as of 2008? Global freedom contracted during the last three years of Bush's tenure, so on the grounds of basic efficacy, the freedom agenda did not produce the results it promised. The balance of freedom shifted (although it still remained favorable) and America's economic and military power were at their lowest ebb in a generation (to say nothing of our global reputation). Measured against such results, the pursuit of a more sustainable strategy strikes me as eminently reasonable.

(AP Photo)

May 27, 2010

Coalitions of the Willing

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For all the sniping at the previous administration, the Obama team seems to have clearly borrowed at least one of its foreign policy doctrines - the "coalition of the willing."

Here's Secretary Clinton, speaking at the Brookings Institution, outlining the administration's thinking:

First, that no nation can meet the world's challenges alone. And second, that we face very real obstacles that stand in the way of turning commonality of interest into common action. Thus, leadership means overcoming those obstacles by building the coalitions that can produce results against those shared challenges.

Notice what she did not say: that these coalitions would be created under the auspices of established multilateral bodies like the United Nations. There has been a lot of talk of late about how the administration plans on revitalizing international institutions, which is a worthwhile goal so far as it goes, but in their search for greater effectiveness it certainly looks as if the Obama administration is trying to hedge its bets.

Unlike the idea of preventative war or the notion that democracy is an antidote to terrorism, this is a concept from the Bush-era that has some merit to it. It's not going to be possible for the U.S. to find broad consensus in the United Nations on anything. Instead it's going to be increasingly important to grab a sub-set of actors for any one issue.

(AP Photo)

May 25, 2010

Change You Shouldn't Believe In

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Will Inboden has some worthwhile thoughts on President Obama's "change" mantra:

In short, through a combination of the burdens and responsibilities of office, prevailing geopolitical realities, the deep cultural currents of U.S. foreign policy, the bureaucratic systems that reinforce those cultural currents, and the crucible of learning that takes place every day in the toughest job in the world, the President Obama of today acts and sounds considerably different than the one elected in November 2008... This is not at all to say that his foreign policy is identical to that of his predecessors -- in important ways it does differ, and as I have written elsewhere, often not for the better -- but only to point out that truly profound structural changes in American foreign policy are very rare. And generally for good reason.

I wonder about this. First, I think it was clear during the general election campaign that Barack Obama was going to be a fairly conventional foreign policy candidate. He surrounded himself with establishment figures and recruited proteges of Brent Scowcroft into his foreign policy team. It's true that some people wanted to paint Obama as some kind of left-wing radical, but that was their dishonesty and partisan hackishness, not the result of any serious look at his policies or foreign policy advisers.

The other, more important point is to question whether we should be celebrating President Obama's embrace of foreign policy orthodoxy in the first place. It would be one thing if the United States were on a roll. But are we? We have just endured the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression - a downturn that has roiled global markets and is just now threatening to unravel the European Union. We are declining economically relative to emerging economies in Asia. We are involved in two wars which will grind their way down to less-than-optimal outcomes (and that's the best-case scenario), while steadily expanding our involvement in a third (Pakistan) with no clear strategy or open debate.

In short, there are plenty of reasons why we should be questioning the orthodoxy, not celebrating President Obama's embrace of it. I think we should be wary of sweeping, sudden and radical changes, but when it comes to U.S. foreign policy I'd suggest the bigger danger isn't that, it's complacency.

(AP Photo)

May 23, 2010

Strategic Logic

David Shorr touches upon a Compass favorite:

If the primary driver and focus of your foreign policy is the challenges and problems, maybe that's a strategically different lens than attending to your friendships. Maybe this approach treats relationships as overly instrumental rather than valuable in themselves. Of course any administration will say that it is working to keep relationships with allies strong, which is undeniably important. I just raise the question whether a hard-driving, problem solving-focused policy is bound to involve the trade-offs I'm describing. And is that really a wrong choice?

Indeed, and if the U.S. continues to find roadblocks where it once saw open highway, it may have to adjust and make the trade-off Shorr is describing.

May 21, 2010

Peripheral Foreign Policy

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Roger Cohen is frustrated by the Obama administration's reaction to the Turkish-Brazilian nuclear fuel deal with Iran:

Brazil and Turkey represent the emergent post-Western world. It will continue to emerge; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should therefore be less trigger-happy in killing with faint praise the “sincere efforts” of Brasilia and Ankara.

The West’s ability to impose solutions to global issues like Iran’s nuclear program has unraveled. America, engaged in two inconclusive wars in Muslim countries, cannot afford a third. The first decade of the 21st century has delineated the limits of U.S. power: It is great but no longer determinative.

Lots of Americans, including the Tea Party diehards busy baying at wolves, are angry about this. They will learn that facts are facts.

This strikes me as somewhat contradictory. Cohen laments the Obama administration's rejection of the fuel swap deal - which he concedes is an insufficient deal that fails to meet the Western demands put forth last year - because 1. You don't want to hurt feelings in Ankara and Brasilia, because they are emerging powers whom you might need down the road, and 2. this deal, while well short of the October arrangement, may have served as a "tenuous bridge between "mendacious" Iranians and “bullying” Americans."

First, the latter point: Spinning a deal for the sake of public perception and reaching a substantive deal are obviously two different things. Cohen asserts that this deal would've been a huge P.R. victory which, I suppose, it could have been. But if the administration is serious about nonproliferation it was necessary to knock this deal down right out the gate - which it apparently did.

And spin spins both ways. While Washington and the West certainly could have spun this deal to their advantage, so too could have the Iranians - as they already have. The whole point of this deal was not only to build trust between Tehran and Washington, but to assuage Western and regional concerns about Iranian enrichment. This week's trilateral deal fails to do that, and thus it fails to actually take time off the so-called Doomsday Clock.

In other words, accept this deal and you basically gave Iran seven months to set the terms of negotiation while rebuffing your own immediate concerns. Clenched fist, check.

As for Brazil and Turkey, what exactly was Obama to do? Accept the deal, and you accept the Turkish-Iranian argument that the deal represents the death knell of sanctions, which the U.S. never agreed to and never will. Cohen may view this deal as a beginning, but Tehran and Ankara are spinning it differently. And as Greg noted yesterday, China and Russia simply matter more than Brazil and Turkey do, especially on the matter of Iranian proliferation.

Will this hurt U.S. efforts down the road when, at some unforeseen moment, Washington needs Ankara or Brasilia? Perhaps. But that's the point: A multi-polar world doesn't guarantee a less divisive one where everyone gets along and hugs out their problems. Quite the contrary.

For much of the 20th century - and the first few years of the 21st - American power was rather easy: Either you're with us, or you're with the evildoer behind door #1. Make your choice. There was a kind of cold clarity in this arrangement, and in some ways the U.S. excelled at it. But as other powers emerge, they also come to the table with years - decades, even - of experience at playing a weaker hand inside global institutions like the UN. They know how to check the maneuverings and desires of other states, just as they too have been checked.

Washington isn't very good at this game, and it's going to take some time for the United States to rebuild capital and use its still preponderantly stronger military and economy to its advantage. This may require a more prudent, interests-based foreign policy designed to keep larger powers in your corner - which, in turn, will mean less peripheral meddling in said powers' backyards.

So will Ankara and Brasilia remember this? Probably. Welcome to the new world order.

UPDATE: Larison offers his thoughts on the matter.

(AP Photo)

May 20, 2010

People Don't Like Being Lectured

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Victor Davis Hanson waxes outraged that Mexican President Calderon "lectured" the U.S. about the supposed awfulness of Arizona's immigration law. And it is bad form for a visiting leader to sound off on domestic legislation in another country while visiting that country. But let's remember that this is precisely what conservatives want Obama to be doing more of. Maybe after tasting their own medicine they'll be less apt to prescribe it. But somehow I doubt it.

(AP Photo)

May 19, 2010

The Ugly End of Exceptionalism?

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Richard Cohen writes:

American conservatives look at the defeats and disappointments, and they fulminate about Obama. They call him weak and inept -- and surely in some areas he has been both. But they are wrong in thinking that another person would make much of a difference. Times have changed. America's power is diminished -- relatively, for sure, but absolutely as well.

I think this is the important takeaway from this week's tripartite nuclear deal between Brazil, Turkey and Iran. While the nuclear alarmists are predictably ringing the bells of Armageddon, they do so, unbeknownst to themselves, from a position of increasing weakness. The Wall Street Journal leads the charge, insisting that President Obama do something, because, well, that's what the American president does. Absent, however, from their editorial panic attack is a feasible policy proposal for making Iran halt its enrichment, disclose all its nuclear wrongdoing and ultimately hug it out with the West.

They believe, as they so wrongly did back in 2002, that American military might alone is enough to compel global behavior and police the world's evildoers - and perhaps it was, during the Cold War. But the United States has yet to articulate a rationale for its role as global superpower in a world with multiple levers and venues for global governance, and the world's emerging powers simply aren't buying it any longer.

And this clearly flummoxes Iran hawks, who can only view American power through the lens of the presidency; they, like some of our allies in Israel, insist that the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is the most pressing crisis facing the world, and should the American president but will it, he (or she) can give a compelling speech, pound his (or her) fist on a table or two, and the world - as it so often has in the past - will bend.

One problem: faith in American power is no longer unanimous. By pegging Iranian engagement to the nonproliferation regime, and in turn Israeli security, the Obama administration opened up a Pandora's box of nuclear populism. The plan, I'll admit, seemed a viable one at first: engage Tehran on the most commonly agreed upon and demonstrated dilemma - namely, its rogue nuclear program - and reach some kind of a deal on LEU in order to give the West breathing room for negotiation; alleviate Israeli concerns of an imminent nuclear arms race in the region; address the nuclear weapons program, and then move on to other longstanding issues in need of redress between Washington and the Islamic Republic.

But Iran has always insisted that the nonproliferation tactic was always a pretext - a multilateral cover - for compelling Iranian behavior and, perhaps, even changing the Iranian regime entirely. And normally, this complaint would fall on (mostly) deaf ears around the globe. But Iran, to its diplomatic credit, cleverly morphed a dispute between a handful of countries into a global debate between the nuclear haves and have-nots. What started as a reasonable discussion about Iranian intransigence became a debate over the legitimacy of the NPT.

The haves versus the have-nots; the emerging world versus the entrenched - this has played out exactly as Iran had hoped.

So what now? I think the best option remaining for the Obama administration is to table the nuclear question and go down the admittedly murky and unpleasant path of grand bargain engagement. Nonproliferation and the future of global nuclear enrichment is far too important to be left in the hands of the Iranians, and the only way the revolutionary regime will play serious ball on the nuclear question is if Washington is willing to address - and redress - Iran's laundry list of grievances and gripes.

Even Israel - which would no doubt protest such a sea change - has more pressing security concerns regarding the Iranians, as the potential threat of a Tehran-fueled arms buildup in the Levant makes confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah appear more and more likely. Setting the nuclear matter aside for the time being would behoove them as well.

But this is all rather unlikely. Iran, for its own part, has a long record of diplomatic gamesmanship and deception, and Obama simply doesn't have the political cover at home to make such a gesture (and the atmosphere may only worsen come November). Obama - after months of nuclear bell-ringing - will be held solely accountable at home for failing to slay the Iranian monster, and Washington will likely creep back into its comfort zone of exceptionalism and saber-rattling toward Tehran. Iran will embed itself even deeper into its own comfort zone of anti-Westernism and global defiance, as the U.S.-Iran status quo keeps trucking along.

How this ends, I'm not sure. Perhaps multilateral sanctions will hasten a breakthrough before the midterm elections, but that's doubtful. I don't believe we're witnessing the buildup to war, but I do believe Obama's window for engagement has likely closed.

(AP Photo)

May 10, 2010

The Real Obama Defense Budget

Not being slashed, according to Benjamin Friedman:

What’s really going here is that the cost of the current defense program is growing so fast that you need large annual increases just to keep what you have. The main cause is rapid growth in the cost of operations and maintenance and personnel. Those accounts are squeezing others (research, development and procurement) needed for new vehicles and weapons. Last year, Gates responded to that pressure by proposing cuts in procurement spending. People treated him like a revolutionary for doing so, but he was just balancing his books. Now that the worst white elephant programs are gone (with several glaring exceptions), Gates is pushing the services to cut overhead costs and shift the saving into procurement. And he is telling them to buy more cheap platforms by controlling requirements creep. Same price, better product. End of story.

The point Gates missed about Eisenhower is that he used strategy to limit spending. The New Look was an air force-first strategy that limited army and navy spending, much to the chagrin of those services. Gates’ enthusiasm for counter-insurgency wars has not lead him to propose cutting the navy and air force budgets to fund the super-sized ground forces one needs for such missions. His official strategy shows little inclination for hard choices.

Real reductions in military spending require reductions in the ambitions it serves. A cheaper military means doing less. This administration has shown no interest in that. Maybe the fiscal situation will force them to reconsider.

I worry that the fiscal restraints won't force them to reconsider, but just under-resource an already over-burdened military.

Plan B: Freedom?

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Looking back on President Obama's Cairo speech, George Packer wonders if the so-called freedom agenda has become too cynically applied:

this Administration will devote its energy to repairing relations with foreign governments, and will not risk them for the sake of human rights. Where the stakes are low, as in the West African nation of Guinea, the Administration speaks out against atrocities, with positive effect; but where there’s a strategic interest, as in Ethiopia, which has jailed dozens of journalists and opposition politicians, the policy is mainly accommodation.
What if people around the world want more than a humble adjustment in America’s tone and behavior? What if American overtures to nasty regimes fail, because those regimes have a different view of their own survival? Then the President will have to devise a fallback strategy—preferably one that answers the desires of the people who applauded in Cairo, and doesn’t leave another generation cynical about American promises. [Emphasis added. - KS]

But isn't part of the problem that the so-called freedom agenda has become a de facto, as Packer puts it, "fallback strategy"? If the United States should learn anything from the previous administration, shouldn't it be that using the rhetoric of freedom as window dressing or, even worse, a "fallback" for policy failures only corrupts and sullies the very word itself?

For want of an actual freedom agenda, the American president is often asked to speak out against every petty despot and dictatorship around the world. But the United States cannot, I hope it goes without saying, invade and occupy every undemocratic country allegedly in need of liberation. Were it even effective - which, even in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, would be a rather untenable claim - it's simply not sustainable.

I believe a big part of the problem is the way in which we measure success and failure in American foreign policy. If, getting back to Packer, it's the American president's job to combat global cynicism, then we are in a lot of trouble. I think sequence matters, and if the United States wants to address freedom it should first start with basic human needs such as health. George W. Bush - for everything he got wrong about Iraq and Afghanistan - seemed to understand this in the case of Africa.

It might also be helpful to retain the moral high ground while discussing a sustainable freedom agenda. Which, for example, is more likely to engender global cynicism: the American president's failure to speak out against Ethiopia, or Americans publicly debating whether or not a U.S. citizen deserves his Miranda rights simply because he's a Muslim?

(AP Photo)

May 4, 2010

Nonproliferation as Team Sport

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No one worries about British or French or American nukes. Nor should anyone worry about Israeli nukes — as long as Israel doesn’t face annihilation, they will never be used.

That’s because countries like the U.S. and Israel have democratic systems with checks and safeguards against capricious use of the ultimate weapons. The problem with Iran is that it has no such safeguards. If it were to acquire nukes, its weapons would be in the hands of millenarian religious fanatics who jail or kill anyone who criticizes them. - Max Boot

If the administration wants to prevent proliferation and/or an arms race in the region, there is only one place on which it needs to focus its attention: Iran.

But since the administration refuses to turn up the heat on the regime, it has gotten nowhere in confronting the actual nuclear threat in the Middle East. So, instead, it is inventing a new threat and dealing with that one. In this case, we’re back to the laughable idea that the United States can extract good behavior from bad regimes by setting an inspiring example of self-abnegation, especially one in which we refuse to show any “favoritism” to our allies. - Noah Pollak

Once upon time, Washington's Iranian ally was an "island of stability," fully deserving of American nuclear know-how and material. The reason the Shah even signed the NPT in the first place was so that he could develop and expand his country's nuclear energy program. Fast forward 40 years, and that one little signature is essentially the spine of the international community's charge of nuclear malfeasance against Iran and its current regime. Without it, Tehran's behavior would legally be no different than India and Japan's, and in fact less "rogue" than Israel's. Without that little signature, we wouldn't even be having a debate over "targeted" multilateral sanctions vs. "crippling" sanctions. There'd be no hand-wringing over Chinese waivers and watered-down measures, because the case for punishing Iran's nuclear behavior would have zero international basis.

All of this is important, because it demonstrates how unbiased and fair global policy can serve a more static, long-term purpose. Alliances change and turn, which is why the case for democratic nuclear entitlement put forth here by Boot and Pollak makes little sense to me. I agree with Pollak that it's not entirely fair to target Israel and Israel alone for its nuclear program, but let's be fair - if Obama were to advocate a more consistent policy of "self-abnegation" and include, for example, India, then the choruses of Indo-American decline would only become louder and more profound.

And Boot seems to confuse democratic transparency for nuclear security. India is indeed a developing and promising democracy, but it's also a divisive and sectarian one; fraught with internal, regional conflicts. Can Boot really call India an island of stability just because it's a democracy in 2009? Is India immune from regime upheaval? Is any nation - much less one accounting for roughly one-sixth of the world's population - immune from such change?

Can he say unequivocally that Israel's undeclared and unmonitored nuclear weapons program will never produce the next A.Q. Khan?

Poll: Public Approval of Obama's Foreign Policy

A few nuggets in this new Times/CBS news poll (pdf): 48 percent of respondents approve (+1 since Feb.) vs. 38 percent disapprove (+4 since Feb.)

Respondents were also asked about their views on Israel:

15 percent - very favorable

40 percent - mostly favorable

16 percent - most unfavorable

7 percent - very unfavorable.

More Republicans (24 percent ) than Democrats (7 percent) had "very favorable" views.

May 3, 2010

Building More Democracies

Apropos the discussion below on the best methods of spreading freedom (if it must be "spread" by the U.S.) Josh Rogin reports that the Obama administration is about to elevate development aid to a key pillar of national strategy. He's gotten his hands on the draft proposal:

The Cable has obtained a draft copy (pdf) of the review, which is titled "A New Way Forward on Global Development" and is known internally as the Presidential Study Directive on Global Development or PSD-7.

"The Obama Administration recognizes that the successful pursuit of development is essential to our security, prosperity, and values," the draft document reads. It promises a "new approach to global development that focuses our government on the critical task of helping to create a world with more prosperous and democratic states."

Obviously a lot of this depends on the implementation. But note what the Obama administration is insisting here - that helping to create a world with more "prosperous and democratic states" is a "critical task."

April 28, 2010

Obama and North Korea

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Danielle Pletka, writing - as usual - about freedomy stuff, bemoans the president's failure to take North Korea seriously . . . or something:

This is North Korea Freedom Week (being commemorated in Seoul, Republic of Korea), though it would be hard to tell in the capital of the freedom-loving world. North Korea appears to have slipped entirely off the radar of the Obama administration; neither the plight of its downtrodden citizens nor the proliferation of its nuclear weapons technology and missiles has stirred the interest of an administration purportedly obsessed with nonproliferation.
North Korea has long had its own people, as well as our allies in Japan and South Korea, in its gun sights. With Iran’s help, our allies in the Middle East and, with time, Europe and the United States, will join that unlucky group.

I really don't want to devote too much time to this, as we already know to take Ms. Pletka's web musings with a grain of salt. So I'll simply ask: What more should President Obama be doing about North Korean oppression and proliferation?

Last year, Pyongyang threatened to test a long-range missile in the direction of Hawaii and the administration quickly moved to fortify Hawaii. Of course, North Korea's track record for testing long-range missiles has been mixed at best, so just how serious these temper tantrums should be taken is debatable.

The ability to use these weapons of course matters, but, like in the case of Iran, such details are a tangential nuisance to Pletka and other neoconservative think tankers. Obama made the necessary maneuverings to defend the country, while quietly deferring to South Korean leadership on nuclear proliferation on the peninsula. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has taken a hard line with the North, one President Obama agrees with. This policy makes sense, as it's in South Korea's more immediate interest - as well as the entire region's - to engage and, if necessary, contain the North.

Pyongyang uses America's presence in the region as justification for its nuclear adventurism; the louder and larger the role played in the region by the U.S., the smaller and less relevant the other actors become. The Obama administration, opting to break this pattern, has stepped back and handed the leadership reins to regional actors in an effort to change the Washington-Pyongyang dynamic. (Dear Leader has apparently taken notice of this shift, and may be rattling the saber a bit louder in order to draw Washington back in.)

So I ask again: With security measures in place, nuclear know-how controls underway and South Korea in the lead, what then should the Obama administration do about North Korea?

UPDATE:

Bruce Klinger of the Heritage Foundation makes a good point, and explains why South Korean leadership - and American compliance - is even more important now in light of the Cheonan sinking:

South Korea will contemplate both unilateral actions, including punitive economic and diplomatic measures, as well as taking the issue to the UN Security Council for multilateral response. In the latter case, Seoul would face stiff opposition from China and Russia, which have obstructed previous attempts to punish Pyongyang for violating UN resolutions.

If South Korea is reluctant to attack, it would be impossible for the US to be “more Korean than the Koreans” by advocating stronger measures. But the Obama administration should consult closely with the South Koreans and support whatever action they are comfortable taking. This should include pressing the Chinese and Russians to relent in favor of tougher international sanctions, and taking unilateral punitive action that complements the South Korean approach.

(AP Photo)

April 24, 2010

Fuzzy Nuclear Math

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Max Bergmann thinks UK candidate Nick Clegg is right to urge the cancellation of the Trident nuclear program. I'm not well versed in the particulars of the Trident debate, but on the broader issue of whether Britain should retain a viable nuclear deterrent, I don't find Bergmann's argument all that persuasive. He writes:

The notion that the UK needs nuclear weapons because of the dangers of Iran demonstrates an outdated world view that sees Britain as isolated and sees security issues in a vacuum. The fact is that the UK is in NATO – which means under Article 5 an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all. This means that an attack on the UK is an attack on the US and therefore the US nuclear deterrent is effectively a UK nuclear deterrent as well. If the UK’s nukes just magically disappeared there would be no practical change in its ability to deter a nuclear attack.

The debate over the Trident is therefore at its heart is not about questions of security but about nuclear weapons as a sign of global prestige and clout. The fact is that the role of nuclear weapons has significantly declined following the end of the Cold War, since, as Colin Powell noted, nuclear weapons are militarily “useless.” Clegg is therefore right when he states in defense of eliminating the Trident that “the world is changing, when we’re facing new threats.”

But a Britain that is willing to spend more than $100 billion dollars on a nuclear weapons program that has little real military utility, is not just swimming against the global tide, but is sending an incredibly regressive signal to the world over the importance of these weapons.

So the British should rely on America's nuclear deterrent when the U.S. is supposedly on its own quest to abolish nuclear weapons and limit the role they play in its own deterrent posture. But if NATO is to have a credible nuclear deterrent someone has to have nuclear weapons. If the U.S. under the Obama administration is intent on scaling back and eventually eliminating its own arsenal, it seems a prudent hedge on Britain's part to retain theirs (in what form and how much they should spend on it is a debate for another day)

Britain enjoys collective security today. And while it's reasonable to conclude that they will continue to do so far into the future, predictions are hard, especially about the future. A country ultimately needs to rely on itself for its own security and in this regard, nuclear weapons are not just fashionable, they are vital. And irrespective of any signaling, the truth is nuclear weapons are important. Why else would we be working so hard to make sure no one else can have them?

(AP Photo)

April 22, 2010

Letting Them Play David

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Ezzedine Choukri Fishere argues for full nuclear disclosure in the Middle East:

First, it would lay to rest the complaints about double standards in the nonproliferation community and relieve the US - and Israel - from the untenable claim that Israel's nuclear arsenal should somehow be treated as exceptional (a claim that nobody outside Washington and Tel Aviv gives serious consideration). The double-standard argument has been the most successful weapon against nonproliferation, especially in mobilizing public support for nuclear projects like those of Saddam's Iraq, Ghaddafi's Libya or Iran (and you will hear a lot about it in the coming weeks leading up to the NPT review). Second, such a dialogue would significantly decrease the pressure on Arab governments to start their own nuclear programs and abort what could be the beginning of a nuclear race in the region. Third, this dialogue would pave the way for the establishment of a Middle East security regime, which could be the vehicle for addressing a wide range of security hazards in this troubled and troubling region. Finally, such a dialogue might offer a framework for addressing Iran's problematic nuclear activities, especially if accompanied by a package of stabilizing confidence-building measures.

The problem here isn't the substance, but the messenger. As Colum Lynch recently pointed out, Washington's sudden insistence that the world disarm and turn back the nuclear doomsday clock rings rather hollow to weaker nations mulling the nuclear weapons route. Once again - much like with the global emissions debate - the United States, having already developed, proliferated and polluted, is telling the rest of the world what's best. There are obviously finer points and nuances to this perception but, generally speaking, it comes across as more unilateral lecturing from the West.

This of course complicates Obama's rapprochement strategy with Iran. Nonproliferation is important, perhaps too important to rest entirely on the unpredictable - and often erratic - actions of the Iranian regime. And thus far, the case against Iran has been an internationalist and legalistic one; filled with violated protocols, perfunctory deadlines and deliberative hectoring. The president intended to engage - instead he audits.

And I get the idea: Halt Iran's nuclear intransigence, buy time on the so-called doomsday clock and create the necessary breathing room to discuss the litany of other issues in need of resolving. But Obama has instead given the Iranians an opening to make this a global 'north' vs. 'south' argument, which hurts your case when you need countries like Brazil, China and Russia to support an engage/sanction Iran strategy. Rather than providing breathing room, the nuclear debate has instead sucked all the oxygen out of the room.

It's a strategy, to be fair, that I supported - and continue to, albeit tentatively. And perhaps there's still a chance for a fuel swap deal, but I remain skeptical.

(AP Photo)

April 20, 2010

Is Obama Out of Step with America on Israel?

In some sense Obama's new policy, rather than the wishes of the Democratic Congress, reflects the new Democratic majority, even as it is at odds with the country at large (63 percent of the American people express support for Israel). More to the point, no alliance can long withstand such a marked divide, in which Republicans are overwhelmingly pro-Israel and Democrats quite clearly are not -- that divide leads to something like the radical change of heart from Bush in 2008 to Obama in 2009. - Victor Davis Hanson

Hanson is right to suggest that we're seeing some fairly sharp partisan divergence over Israel. But I think he's wrong to suggest that President Obama is somehow broadly out of step with the American people when it comes to his policy toward Israel.

As proof of his claim, Hanson relies on the Gallup poll sited above, but nowhere does that poll imply that somehow President Obama is anti-Israel. And there have been others polls which suggest that public opinion on the Israel-Palestinian issue is less clear cut: an Economist/YouGov poll in March showed a more nuanced picture of American sympathies in the Mideast conflict. A Zogby poll showed a majority thought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was harmful to U.S. interests and 50 percent of respondents said the U.S. should steer a "middle course" between the two parties. Earlier in March, Rasmussen found that 49 percent of Americans thought Israel should be required to stop settlement building as part of a peace deal.

Now put this in the context of what President Obama has actually done: publicly and repeatedly affirmed America's "unbreakable" commitment to Israel's security, exerted considerable efforts trying to derail Iran's nuclear program, relaunched the peace process, ratcheted up public criticism of settlement building and denied Prime Minister Netanyahu a White House photo-op. A fair-minded observer could disagree with some of these decisions and argue that the Obama administration has behaved boorishly and counter-productively toward an ally by criticizing it in public. But I don't think we can conclude - as Hanson does - that these policies reflect an administration in the grip of "campus multiculturalists" or that they're otherwise way out of step with the American public.

April 18, 2010

Will Obama Strike Iran?

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I have always operated under the assumption that the Obama administration would rather "live with" a nuclear Iran than launch a military operation to stop them. I based that assumption on the grounds that Obama opposed the Iraq war and was elected at least in some measure on the basis of his anti Iraq war stance. Given the rough similarities between a preventative war in Iraq in 2003 and a preventative military strike against Iran, combined with the public statements from some senior defense officials (Gates and Mullen), I figured Obama would pass on the opportunity.

Reading this piece in the NY Times, however, I'm less sure:

Pressed on the administration’s ambiguous phrases until now about how close the United States was willing to allow Iran’s program to proceed, a senior administration official described last week in somewhat clearer terms that there was a line Iran would not be permitted to cross.

The official said that the United States would ensure that Iran would not “acquire a nuclear capability,” a step Tehran could get to well before it developed a sophisticated weapon. “That includes the ability to have a breakout,” he said, using the term nuclear specialists apply to a country that suddenly renounces the nonproliferation treaty and uses its technology to build a small arsenal. [Emphasis mine]

We don't know who this senior administration official is, so he or she could be talking out of turn, but the implications of the rhetoric are clear enough. If the diplomatic and sanctions tracks fail (which I suspect they will) the Obama administration will use military force. Is there any other way to read that? And does this really reflect President Obama's thinking?

(AP Photo)

April 15, 2010

-Ism Schism

Which IR box does Obama fit in? Is he Carter, Bush 41 or Bush 43? Dan Drezner wonders:

Moving from personalities to ideas, the realist/idealist divide, you still wind up with a muddle. Bob Kagan is right to say that Obama's desire for a nuclear-free world is about as idealistic as one can get. Similarly, Obama's affirmation of multilateralism doesn't seem terribly realist either. On the other hand, his policies towards great power rivals like Russia and China, and dependent allies like Israel and Afghanistan, seem pretty damn realist. Much like his Nobel Peace Prize address, the Obama administration's latest foray into the less shallow waters of international relations theory offers a sliver of support to all major IR approaches.

Which box you put him in, I suspect, depends on which policy dimension you think matters most. Human rights advocates will use the r-word; fans of nuclear deterrence will use the i-word. As someone concerned with the management of great power politics, I'd be comfortable calling Obama an realist, but I'm biased -- I speculated that this was the approach the post-Bush president would be forced to pursue.

I think much of this really depends on the issue itself, as well as the advisers in the president's ear on the matter. If, for example, nonproliferation makes one an IR idealist, then how do we classify Reagan? And I happen to agree with Drezner's final point; a president's hand is often forced by the times and circumstances.

I think this is a bigger rant for another time, but overall, you already know what I think.

April 14, 2010

Understanding Limitations

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Assessing President Obama's recent Nuclear Posture Review, Tom Barnett writes:

Does this new doctrine make non-state actors any less likely to attack America with weapons of mass destruction? No. The NPR reiterates America's intense desire to hold accountable anybody who aids non-state actors in their acquisition of WMD, but it basically avoids any clear statement of how it will strategically respond to the successful use of WMD by terrorists against the United States. All that non-state actors can infer is that any non-nuclear WMD attack verifiably launched from an NPT-compliant state would not automatically trigger a U.S. nuclear retaliatory strike. Since al-Qaida and other extremists would probably welcome such a reflexive nuclear retaliation, they might judge this new doctrine a mild disappointment, but hardly a strengthened deterrent.

So we're left with this underwhelming effect: States not currently seeking nuclear weapons are assured that America won't mindlessly "go nuclear" on them if non-nuclear, but still-strategic attacks are launched from their soil. If such states actually harbored a huge and growing fear about this kind of scenario -- a fear so great that it was keeping them from cooperating with the West on stemming nuclear proliferation -- then I would say that Obama had accomplished something real with this change. But as no such dynamic is at work, I instead spot the latest example of Obama's occasional penchant for exquisite rhetoric masquerading as "change you can believe in."

I think what's really in conflict here is the politics of the presidency and the actual levers at the American president's disposal. We've become accustomed to expecting anything and everything from the executive, especially since the September 11 attacks. This, as I have argued, has resulted in a rather frenetic and, at times, reckless foreign policy.

The Iraq War, in many ways, represented the nadir of American unilateralism. It exhausted much of the capital gained by the 9/11 attacks and, to paraphrase Colin Powell, sucked all of the oxygen from the room. This, coupled with an increasingly multi-polar world order, has brought the foreign policy and domestic politics contradiction to to the forefront. Thus, President Obama must talk in grandiose, game-changing proses, while in truth applying a policy of what we might call a sane status quo at best. This creates the bizarre political environment we see today, where being the domestic political opposition is in truth the better place to be because it permits a kind of hyperbolic insincerity that may never be tested in any real policy realm. (Democrats certainly aren't exempt from this behavior; remember partitioning Iraq?)

The United States is still by far the most powerful and influential country in the world, but none of that will matter if Washington fails to ever reconcile actual ability with the unrealistic expectations of the presidency. Being the Leader of the Free World matters far less than being a reliable and honest partner in the multi-or-non-polar one.

(AP Photo)

April 12, 2010

Karzai, Blind Squirrels and Blithering Idiots

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Responding to Sarah Palin's defense of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Andrew Exum writes:

Oh, and by the way, if you think using leverage to affect the political choices made by the Afghan leadership is not a good thing right now, then you are a) Liz Cheney, b) Sarah Palin, c) a blithering idiot or d) some combination of the previous options.

Well, then I suppose I'll take "c) blithering idiot" for $1,000, Andrew.

However, keeping my blithering idiocy in mind, I wonder if Exum could perhaps clarify what he means by "using leverage." I don't think anyone - not even Governor Palin, for that matter - is arguing that Karzai should be exempt from any and all forms of diplomatic pressure. What she and other critics of the Obama administration's handling of Karzai seem to be taking exception to is the very public belittling of the man.

Larison suggests that Karzai's latter-day defenders are simply adding this to a continuum of mostly hollow attacks on Obama's foreign policy. I'm sympathetic to this argument, and he's probably right, but so what? Obviously, the president is going to make policy mistakes, and if your fallback position is to simply attack everything that he does, eventually, you're going to get one right! Blind squirrel ---> nut.

But if the United States is truly invested in securing and nurturing Afghanistan's fragile young democracy, what then is the point in publicly humiliating the democratically elected-ish leader of said investment? There's nothing wrong with pressuring Karzai behind closed doors; publicly equivocating when asked if Karzai is even a U.S. ally is another matter entirely.

If he is an ally, well then the answer should be simple. If he isn't, then what the hell are we doing in Afghanistan? As a critic of the Afghan surge, Karzai's legitimacy never really mattered as much to me as did eradicating al-Qaeda's presence in the region - and we're doing that. Exum, on the other hand, supports a prolonged military presence in Afghanistan, and yet, for some reason, also supports publicly undermining the democratically elected-ish leader of the country.

American legitimacy in Afghanistan is pegged to the legitimacy of Karzai and the Afghan government. Should it come as a surprise then when Karzai chooses to do photo ops with Ahmadinejad and, even more absurdly, threatens to join the Taliban after Washington publicly exposes him to be a contrivance or puppet of the West? Such marching orders place him in a rather untenable spot, no?

I don't know the answers to all of these questions, but I'm just a blithering idiot . . . or perhaps Liz Cheney. Is it too late to change my answer?

(AP Photo)

April 9, 2010

Since When Did They Love Deterrence?

Daniel Larison picks up on a curious criticism directed at President Obama's nuclear policy:

After having spent decades dismissing the possibility of deterring "rogue" regimes, Krauthammer and his colleagues cannot stop talking about deterrence all of a sudden, but they aren't willing to acknowledge that vast conventional military superiority is also a deterrent against attack.

Just so. We've spent the last nine years specifically listening to analysts and pundits mount attack after attack on the concept of deterrence. Back when America was safe and secure under President Bush's nuclear policy, the threat from Saddam Hussein was so urgent, the dictator so unpredictable and undeterrable, that only a war would suffice. Now the same people who had no faith in deterrence with respect to Iraq (and now, Iran) would have us believe that President Obama is nonetheless undermining America's deterrent capability.

Going Nuclear

And the award for the most sober-minded, intellectually rigorous appraisal of President Obama's nuclear policy goes to Jeffrey Kuhner:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly mocked Mr. Obama as an amateur. Iran is on the verge of acquiring the nuclear bomb. Like Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, Mr. Ahmadinejad rightly senses that the West's champion has lost the will to stand up to fascist dictators bent on military expansion. Mr. Obama's policies of appeasement - and threats of hollow sanctions - only elicit contempt from the Persian Nazi strongman...

Mr. Obama's dream is a nightmare. Pax Americana has maintained global order since 1945. It is now crumbling, sapped by a crisis of confidence. The barbarians are at the gates. A new Dark Age is almost upon us. The American superpower is no more.

Runner up: Sarah Palin.

Second runner up: Tony Kinsella, who writes:

As the US Senate gears up to discuss the new treaty much will be written about different missile systems, verification arrangements and a host of other technical matters. All this will be of, at best, limited relevance.

The more revolutionary challenge is one of humanity coming to terms with the novel reality that our 192 nation states no longer threaten each other militarily and that the era of inter-state wars is most probably behind us.

Um, sure.

April 8, 2010

START of a New Silly Season

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Dan McGroarty - a George H.W. Bush administration alum, and regular RCW contributor - analyzes President Obama's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and the New START treaty signed just today with Moscow:

In fact, the single largest line item in the 2011 Obama budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration is $2 billion for warhead modernization. The president's hairsplitting on whether a new warhead on an old missile makes it a new weapon is sure to demoralize the disarmament wing of his Democratic base - even as it invites a spirited discussion with Senate Republicans who stand between New START and its ratification.

For the cynically inclined - a group that likely includes North Korea's Dear Leader and Iran's ruling mullahs - it all adds up to a kind of nuclear collusion between the old Cold War superpowers to reduce the carrying costs of so many warheads, while keeping options open to improve the warheads each retains, and reserving the right to add more under the strategic bomber loophole.

So is the new treaty counter-productive to the point that the U.S. Senate should refuse ratification? No. The Senate can sign off not because New START does so much so well, but because it attempts so little. For that very reason, don't expect the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to turn back the doomsday clock - and don't expect New START to shame the rogues of the world into abandoning their nuclear dreams.[emphasis my own - KS]

Please be sure to read all of Dan's piece, and cling to its sobriety and thoughtfulness like your childhood blanket, dear readers. His point is an important one: in truth, the ardent nonproliferationist has just as much to be irked about today as the nuclear weapons proponent - if not more. Nuclear status quo wins the day. But you wouldn't know that judging by recent commentary from otherwise thoughtful analysts such as Max Boot and Victor Davis Hanson, who have taken the NPR and New START as an opportunity to grab the weaker America meme and run with it; substance be damned.

In truth, the updated NPR changes little, and has virtually no impact on the United States' ability to reciprocate WMD with WMD if attacked. It's mostly business as usual for U.S. foreign policy.

But that doesn't sit well with a number of people, especially the president's political rivals. With it being a mid-cycle election year, the Republican Party must come up with a viable message at the state and district levels in order to strengthen its hand in Congress for the duration of Obama's term. Their dilemma, however, is that President Obama has indeed done very little to change substantive policy abroad, thus forcing them to concoct a variety of rows and crises in order to raise Obama's negatives. The criticisms have rarely borne out, but they needn't have to, so long as the GOP can come up with clever slogans and biting one-liners about American decline for its TV spots and direct mail packages.

As Michael Goldfarb - a gentleman who's certainly familiar with the rotating Washington door of politics, policy and media - put it just this week:

The treaty is a give-away to Moscow, but it isn’t a total capitulation -- the cuts are marginal and the effect will largely be to continue the status quo, i.e. a decaying U.S. nuclear deterrent and rampant proliferation. We already knew that reversing those trends isn’t a top priority for the Obama administration (excepting Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who seems to have put up a real fight on this one).

Still, it’s an election year. How eager will Senate Republicans be to deliver their votes for a treaty that the administration will then turn around and hype as its signature (sole) foreign policy achievement?

Let the 2010 silly season begin.

(AP Photo)

April 7, 2010

What, Exactly?

Ambinder nails it on the NPR critics:

The NPR's reliance on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is predicated on strengthening the NPT's penalties for non-compliant states. Number three, it is actively pressing China and Russia to support sanctions against Iran and hasn't ruled out imposing tougher sanctions with Europe alone (whatever that would accomplish.) Number four, "directly confronting" means -- what, exactly? War? Say it aloud, senators, if that's what you intend. [emphasis my own]

But they won't, and they probably won't have to. This is about raising the president's negatives and creating contrast; it's not at all about legitimate policy concerns. As the critics all but admit, they can't allow Obama to have a political victory abroad. Not during the mid-cycle silly season.

Obama's Foreign Policy Gets Poor Marks

Zogby's latest interactive approval poll shows the public holds pretty negative views on the Obama administration's handling of foreign policy:


Foreign Policy: 43% positive vs. 55% negative

War on Terrorism: 40% vs. 57%

Afghanistan: 38% vs. 61%

Iraq: 37% vs. 61%

April 6, 2010

Nuclear Posture Review

David Sanger and Peter Baker have the goods on the administration's nuclear posture review:

It eliminates much of the ambiguity that has deliberately existed in American nuclear policy since the opening days of the cold war. For the first time, the United States is explicitly committing not to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, even if they attacked the United States with biological or chemical weapons or launched a crippling cyberattack.

Those threats, Mr. Obama argued, could be deterred with “a series of graded options,” a combination of old and new conventional weapons. “I’m going to preserve all the tools that are necessary in order to make sure that the American people are safe and secure,” he said in the interview in the Oval Office.

White House officials said the new strategy would include the option of reconsidering the use of nuclear retaliation against a biological attack, if the development of such weapons reached a level that made the United States vulnerable to a devastating strike.

Mr. Obama’s new strategy is bound to be controversial, both among conservatives who have warned against diluting the United States’ most potent deterrent and among liberals who were hoping for a blanket statement that the country would never be the first to use nuclear weapons.

Mr. Obama argued for a slower course, saying, “We are going to want to make sure that we can continue to move towards less emphasis on nuclear weapons,” and, he added, to “make sure that our conventional weapons capability is an effective deterrent in all but the most extreme circumstances.”

Like the new START treaty, it's hard to see this having any effect on the nations we're most concerned about.

March 30, 2010

Critics and Consistency

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Responding to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's backhanded praise for American health care reform, Kevin Drum writes:

Sarkozy was something of a darling of the right when he was first elected, thanks to his support of laissez-faire economics and general embrace of American values. But the financial collapse of 2008 turned him into something of a regulatory hawk, and now there's this. I'll bet the American right doesn't think much of him anymore.

I'm not so sure. So long as he - or any leader of an allied country, for that matter - continues to criticize President Obama's performance abroad, I think the critics will continue to find praise, warranted or unwarranted, for Sarkozy.

I think this goes back to a point we've made repeatedly here on this blog, and that is that the president's critics have thus far demonstrated a serious lack of consistency when it comes to foreign policy. Neoconservatives in particular have been bemoaning the cultural and global decline of Europe for nearly a decade, but once administrations changed, so too did the tone.

This makes for some oddly inconsistent rhetoric, particularly from the right. So either Obama fails to meet the Sarkozy standard, or he leads a party too heavily influenced by the French. What does that even mean? Does it have to mean anything? Probably not; we're talking about the world of politics after all, where things needn't make sense in order to be repeated over and over again.

(AP Photo)

March 29, 2010

Surge Wars: Obama vs. Bush

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Stephen Walt hopes that Obama is going to follow Bush's Iraq surge script in Afghanistan:

First, announce an escalation of the U.S. effort (aka a "surge"), but set a rough deadline for it and quietly put new emphasis on "political reconciliation." (Done). Next, bombard the media with lots of evidence of progress, such as Taliban "strongholds" seized, al Qaeda leaders killed or captured, Taliban leaders arrested in Pakistan, etc., so that people think the surge is working. (Now underway). Third, arrange a diplomatic settlement that requires the phased withdrawal of U.S./ISAF troops, even if their departure is on a rather lengthy timetable. The Iraqi equivalent was the Status of Forces agreement negotiated by the Bush administration in the fall of 2008; in Afghanistan, it would probably entail some sort of negotiation between the Karzai government, the Taliban, and various other warlords (whether by a loya jirga) or some other device (Maybe underway too?). Finally, start removing the "surged" forces more-or-less on schedule-and ahead of the 2012 election cycle-so that you can claim to have avoided the quagmire that critics warned about back in 2009 (Remains to be seen).

I think this overlooks a critical component that distinguishes an Obama surge from Bush's Iraq surge. In the latter, there was an entire corps of pundits and former administration officials heavily invested in portraying the Iraq surge as a victory. Even before President Bush left office, they were proclaiming the early security gains of the Iraq surge as a historic victory. Since the gains have held, they've gone into overdrive.

In Afghanistan, there's no one to declare victory for Obama. Conservative supporters of the president's Afghan surge are on record opposing a 2011 draw-down. It's safe to assume that the country will remain violent and unstable enough in 2011 for them to renew and strengthen their opposition to any large-scale draw-down, especially since it will dovetail with the larger election-year critique of Obama as craven appeaser. And Obama doesn't have much, if any, support for an Afghan surge to his left. That leaves the administration to make the case that they've "won" in Afghanistan by their lonesome.

And 2012 works against Obama in another way. One reason I suspect that Iraq war supporters proclaimed victory with such reckless abandon was the calculation that any ensuing violence could be dumped in Obama's lap. The bigger the proclaimed victory, the harder the partisan hit Obama would take if Iraq's sectarian tensions once again erupted. At the next election cycle, the Obama administration has no one to "hand off" Afghanistan to but (it hopes) itself.

(AP Photo)

Whither the Special Relationship?

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The House of Commons report on U.S.-UK ties that Kevin linked to below is sure to generate further angst about the state of America's alliances. But, in this case at least, such angst is probably unwarranted.

You can just as easily read the report as saying "no more Iraqs." That is, the U.S. can't simply assume British support for any policy Washington endorses. This might be bad news for those pining for a war with Iran, but from a UK perspective at least, why wouldn't they want to preserve a little more flexibility? The report also states:

"We must be realistic and accept that globalisation, structural changes and shifts in geopolitical power will inevitably affect the UK-US relationship".

That sounds reasonable enough to me. It's worth remembering that there have been a number of much more serious flare-ups in U.S.-UK relations than President Obama's reported "coolness" to Great Britain (Mark Tran has a nice run down of them here). I don't think there's any reason to seriously worry about the fundamentals.

Will Inboden disagrees somewhat, saying the relationship is suffering from neglect on both sides of the Atlantic:

Yet the Special Relationship is "not dead yet." There are opportunities here for political leaders in both countries. President Obama, as I have written before, should seize the initiative and set up an official visit with whichever man wins the U.K. elections on May 6, as soon as the new Prime Minister is determined (still most likely to be David Cameron). Last Sunday, Shadow Foreign Minister William Hague and Foreign Minister David Miliband held a Sky News television debate, which revealed few substantial differences between Labour and the Tories on national security policy. Now this foolish House of Commons report offers a chance for Cameron and Hague to draw a clear distinction between their party and Labour.

I personally don't see this becoming a huge issue in British politics, but it would certainly be interesting to watch if it did.

UPDATE: Writing in the Times, John Charmley takes a more jaundiced view of the special relationship:

After being dropped straight into the guano at Suez in 1956, Eden wondered in his memoirs whether it would have served Britain better if we had taken a leaf from de Gaulle’s book and treated the Americans mean to keep them keen. Now even this committee of MPs has realised that behaving like a love-struck co-dependent only works when the object of that dependency reciprocates.

To be fair to the Americans, they have long made their attitude clear: the sudden end of lend-lease in 1945; insisting on interest on the loan Britain begged them for in 1946; leaving us and the French dangling at Suez; insisting that we should join the Common Market; and even when the Argentinians invaded British territory in 1982, President Reagan had to be pushed by his Defence Secretary out of neutrality. One might have thought then that an inability to be able to distinguish between a nasty dictatorship and an ally might have given the British Government a clue to the real nature of the Anglo-American relationship.

(AP Photo)

March 27, 2010

All Politics Is Loco

Glenn Reynolds writes:

Possibly Obama just hates Israel and hates Jews. That’s plausible — certainly nothing in his actions suggests otherwise, really.

This debate is veering into waters we'd rather not traverse here on The Compass, but I believe this ties into my earlier post on the future of U.S.-Israeli relations. That relationship will remain substantively unchanged, and I get the sense that those lamenting a "drift" between the two countries - mostly critics on the right - are simply reaching for calamity and chaos out of political dislike for Barack Obama rather than anything truly substantive.

I don't care about that; I get it. The party on the 'outs' has to find a way to de-legitimize the party on the 'in' and justify its own message and rationale for public office. I get that. But I also think Reynolds is a smart and thoughtful guy, and this is a debate in need of smarter and more thoughtful commentary than baseless charges of antisemitism.

Other presidents have pushed harder on Israel over the same sensitive matters. Making this all about Obama for political expedience does, in my opinion, a disservice to the discussion.

[h/t the Dish]

The Transactional Special Relationship

I've said my piece on the Israel-East Jerusalem-Biden-Bibi-Obama kerfuffle, but I wanted to highlight this projection made by Peter Wehner on U.S.-Israeli relations down the road:

Because of what is unfolding, there will be significant injury to our relationship with Israel. But it is also doing considerable damage to America’s moral standing. At its best, America stands for the right things and stands beside the right friends. In distancing us from Israel, Obama is distancing America from a nation that has sacrificed more for peace, and suffered more for their sacrifices, than any other. It is a deeply discouraging thing to see. And it is dangerous, too. Hatred for Israel is a deep and burning fire throughout the world. We should not be adding kindling wood to that fire.

I'm not entirely indifferent to this argument, and a similar point was made in one of our comment threads. Perhaps it is true that critics of America's relationship with Israel have glossed over the benefits - both tangible and not so tangible - in the relationship, while at the same time placing too much emphasis on the military aid provided. Let's, for the sake of argument, grant that.

The problem however with this argument is that the United States has had diplomatic brouhahas with allies that predate the Israeli relationship; allies with which we also share democratic ideals, not to mention the sharing of intelligence and other more tangible items. We had one of these blowups with Britain just recently. But the U.S.-U.K. relationship will endure - despite any harsh words and tough rhetoric exchanged - because the inherent value and history in the relationship is stronger than any contemporary flare-ups.

What then does it say of the U.S.-Israel relationship that one side cannot endure even the slightest of criticism from its most precious and "special" ally? Why do analysts like Peter Whener consider a passing kerfuffle to be a crisis if our ideals are so in sync?

Critics talk as though Obama is the first president to tie aid and support to policy, which he most certainly isn't. And were Washington's relationship with Israel a normal, healthy one, this wouldn't be such a problem. The idea that friends and allies can critique each other isn't, as Larison notes, a new one. And it makes sense that countries will apply conditions to foreign aid that are consistent with that country's interests and ideals. America does this with its other allies, as does China. But our special relationship with Israel is different and is, as a result, far more "special" - and peculiar.

So allow me to make my own prediction: the United States will continue to provide a large and unique sum of military aid to Israel, the two countries will continue to operate in conjunction on specific threats, such as Iran, and - sadly, by my view - the status quo will remain the status quo for the indefinite future. Israel will be no more "isolated" than it already is, and Jerusalem will continue to be indifferent to this isolation so long as the United States continues to hand it unqualified military support on an annual basis.

March 25, 2010

A "Shift in Perception"

Victor Davis Hanson writes on the East Jerusalem row:

The subsequent result is not so much a cut-off of U.S. aid as a subtle shift in perception abroad: Israel’s multiple enemies now are almost giddy in sensing that America is not all that into protecting the Jewish state, intellectually or morally. And given the nature of the UN, given the power of oil, given endemic anti-Semitism, given the collapse of classical liberal thought in Europe (e.g., Britain was far more deferential to Libya in repatriating a supposedly “terminally ill” mass murderer to Tripoli than it is currently with Israel), and given the realpolitik amorality of Russian and Chinese foreign policy, the world as a whole can now far more easily step up its own natural pressure on Israel, at just the moment when it increasingly has no margin of error with a soon-to-be nuclear Iran.

I'm really not sure if there's any serious discussion left to be had with those who make such claims. I've already addressed this argument here, here and here, so in short, I'll simply note that President Obama has done nothing to change America's strategic relationship with Israel, and no one - no one - will be allowed to militarily challenge the long-term security and health of the Jewish state. Period.

But for some reason - and you saw it even in our blog exchange with AEI's Danielle Pletka - the president's foreign policy critics continue to confuse puffery and rhetoric for substantive policy. Lacking any real evidence with which to indict him, these critics instead talk about tone, feelings and "perception," while glossing over the fact that Washington provides Israel with nearly a quarter of its annual defense budget.

So while Israel is just as militarily and strategically secure as it has ever been - if not more so - critics like Hanson worry about Israel's perceptual and "intellectual" insecurity . . . whatever that means.

It's becoming increasingly difficult to take these people seriously. Larison has more.

March 24, 2010

Whitewashing Assad

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Totten scratches his head over the Obama administration's apparent Syria policy:

Engaging Syria and describing Assad as a reasonable man would make sense if something epic had just happened that might convince him to run his calculations again, such as the overthrow or collapse of Ali Khamenei’s government in Iran. Otherwise, the administration is setting itself up for another failure in the Middle East that will damage its — no, our — credibility. One good thing will probably come of it, though. The naifs will learn. They’ll learn it the hard way, which seems to be the only way most of us learn anything over there. But they’ll learn.

(AP Photo)

March 19, 2010

(Not So) Fair and Friendly

Shmuel Rosner throws some cold water on that Haaretz poll currently making the web rounds regarding Obama's approval in Israel.

March 17, 2010

Where's the Love?

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In the comments, HDarrow asked a good question a few days ago:

Which countries have we improved our relations with in the past year?

Which countries have we worsened our relations with in the past year?

Peter Feaver answers it a bit here.

My short list of countries where we've seen the most movement:

Improved Relations:
1. Russia
2. Pakistan

Worse Relations:
1. Israel
2. China
3. Japan
4. Poland
5. Czech Republic


(AP Photo)

Enemies and Allies

On Monday I asked critics of Obama's policy toward Israel to show me where any substantive changes had been made since the president's election. In response, a regular reader writes:

The problem with your theory that nothing has changed is the behavior of the Obama administration. There is a limited amount of diplomatic oxygen which makes the public vituperation over a position that (a) is an Israeli position held for decades and (b) enjoys wall to wall support in Israel both substantive and regarded as an indicator of true future intentions. So exactly what did Obama, Biden and Clinton think they were going to gain from broadcasting a demand that Israel could and would never accede to? If nothing is at stake, why are these highest of officials wasting time on this?

The U.S. demanding that an ally do something which it could never do and making that the center stage issue is a substantive change because it is an exercise of that limited resource of public leadership. It is a public exercise of a sort that was not used with respect to Iran or Russia.

But Washington doesn't have the kind of influence over Russia and Iran that it should theoretically have over Israel. In the case of Russia, the United States has to deal with a nuclear-armed energy power with a permanent perch on arguably the world's most authoritative deliberative body. In the case of Iran, years of diplomatic and economic disengagement have left the U.S. with few carrots to hang over Tehran's head (this is the crux of the unilateral versus multilateral sanctions debate). Both regimes have a strategic interest in not only resisting American overtures, but even, at times, rebuffing them entirely. This in turn makes diplomacy a more difficult and, yes, finite commodity to be used with care.

It's supposed to work differently with allies however, as shared values and strategic interests should, in theory, make diplomatic cajoling, hand-wringing and arm-twisting unnecessary. If strategic interests line up, then the diplomacy should sort itself out, right? So why is it so different in the case of Israel?

The problem as I see it is that the American relationship with Israel has become something more like a security pact than a strategic alliance, with the United States serving as the guarantor of Israeli security in the region. The tangible and strategic benefits for the United States may be less than apparent, but that's okay. The U.S. supports the security and longevity of the Jewish state not for some cynical or material end, but because it's the right thing to do.

But such a strategic imbalance has to have a line, and I do believe this Israeli government may have crossed it. That the Israelis are somehow entrenched or unwavering on Jerusalem is neither true (indeed, Ehud Barak managed to move public opinion on Jerusalem to what were, at the time, unimaginable points during the Camp David process), nor is it entirely the point. The Obama administration doesn't have the luxury of caring only about public opinion in Israel, as it must also care about public opinion in Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and throughout the entire region. The opinions of a select few despots and monarchs, sadly, must also be taken into consideration by Washington.

Public opinion doesn't lead countries; leaders do. Netanyahu's government can play domestic politics with regional indifference because the region has done likewise to Israel. But the United States can only referee this squabble so long as its own interests aren't being harmed. At this point, it's unclear whether or not this current incarnation of Israeli leadership even knows what's in its own best interest.

It is, at times, a bizarre patron-client relationship, but the actual policy has not changed one bit; the United States, for better or for worse, will guarantee Israel's security through large, unique military aid packages and a regional security umbrella. And if the dialogue between patron and client suddenly seems out of whack, perhaps that's because the relationship has been a lopsided one all along.

March 16, 2010

Glassman and Pape at New America

There are two great events happening today at the New America Foundation, and we have 'em both live right here at RealClearWorld.

The first event, starting at 12:15 pm EST, will be a discussion with former Undersecretary of State James Glassman on "the role strategic communications can play in helping the United States in Iran."

The second event, set to kick off at 3:30 pm EST, will be a discussion with Professor Robert Pape on the rise of suicide terrorism in Afghanistan.

Steve Clemons will be moderating the day's events, and you can watch them both at either The Washington Note or right here on The Compass following the jump:

Continue reading "Glassman and Pape at New America" »

Happy New Year . . . You're the Worst!

Writing on this week's Iranian New Year, Barbara Slavin reports on the kind of Nowruz message the Green Movement might like to hear from President Obama:

The White House had no immediate comment on whether Obama would send a Nowruz message this year, or what it would say.

A top aide to Mehdi Karroubi, one of three candidates who opposed incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 12 vote, said Obama should send Nowruz greetings this year. However, he argued that the message should focus on human rights and commemorate the scores of Iranians -- such as Neda Agha Soltan -- who have been killed since June by plainclothes thugs, prison torturers, and government executioners.

I think far too much thought gets put into these Nowruz messages, and using them to make subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at the Iranian regime didn't start with President Obama. Because a careful line must be straddled between attacking the regime and insulting the Iranian people (not to mention those all around the world celebrating the holiday), the message tends to be rather canned and predictable; usually something about "respecting the Iranian people, but," and so on.

Does anybody really care? Imagine, for a moment, if the Iranian government used popular Western holidays to take potshots at America and its allies. Oh, wait, it has. They're usually backhanded, they generate some buzz, and then everyone moves on. These "messages" have had very little effect on actual policy, if any, and are mostly forgotten soon after. So why exploit these holidays in the first place? We can guess why Ahmadinejad does it, but should the West play the same game?

This also touches upon a recurring pet peeve of mine: the exaggerated significance of big words and righteous statements. And since words usually get relegated to the archives, we rarely revisit them to take account and measure for actual results. These Nowruz messages - while perhaps cross-cultural, noteworthy and satisfying - don't change much, and if the White House insists on doing one, it should consider sticking to a message that doesn't transparently split Iranians into various factions.

March 15, 2010

Where's the Beef's Beef?

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Addressing the U.S.-Israel row, the Wall Street Journal writes:

Then again, this episode does fit Mr. Obama’s foreign policy pattern to date: Our enemies get courted; our friends get the squeeze. It has happened to Poland, the Czech Republic, Honduras and Colombia. Now it’s Israel’s turn.

Seriously, if I hear this argument one more time I'm going to lose my damn mind.

I challenge the increasingly marginal number of pundits, pols and bloggers who are blaming this incident on the Obama administration to explain to me exactly where and how Obama has changed U.S. policy on Israel in any material or substantive fashion. Joe Biden went over to Israel to make nice and say in no uncertain terms that "there is no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel's security" against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The point of the trip was to provide conciliatory rhetoric to the already ample and obvious aid and support that the United States has allocated to Israel for FY2010.

But instead, Biden got sandbagged. Bibi either knew what was coming and anticipated the diplomatic kerfuffle for domestic political gain, or he didn't and demonstrated for all the world to see that he leads an unsteady government incapable of managing even its most precious and important alliance. Either way, the blame falls solely on Netanyahu. And as Tom Friedman, Walter Russell Mead and the Jerusalem Post editorial board all noted, this move made the Israeli government look completely incoherent and incompetent. That this is something coalition saboteurs have engineered in the past should be irrelevant. As Martin Indyk pointed out, never before has it been done to such a high ranking American official, and never, I would assume, to an American public official with a legislative record so staunchly pro-Israel as Biden's.

This was in fact a direct shot at Israel's staunchest ally, during a visit from one of its most ardent supporters. Yet, for some reason which clearly escapes me, there is a faction - albeit a tiny one - pinning blame for the fallout on the Obama administration. Worse yet, this same faction for the most part believes that this event is somehow consistent with a record of disinterest or hostility toward a nation that hasn't had any aid guarantees seriously challenged since 2005, while President Bush was still in office.

Simply mind boggling.

UPDATE: Eric Cantor demands to know why "the Palestinian Authority get a pass," even though Vice President Biden cosponsored the bill labeling the PA a terrorist organization.

Once again, I must ask: where is the substance?

(AP Photo)

March 12, 2010

Gotta Have Faith?

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Laura Rozen reports on President Obama's faith-based foreign policy:

Obama's foreign policy is informed by the Catholic concept of the common good, McDonough tells Religion News Service. "'It’s a general posture of seeking engagement to find mutual interests, but also realizes that there is real evil in the world that we must confront,' he said in an interview at his West Wing office. 'The president also recognizes that we are strongest when we work together with our allies.'” McDonough, the brother of a Catholic theologian, helped vet Miguel Diaz, "a young theologian on the faculty" of his alma mater, St. John's University, "to become ambassador to the Vatican last May," it reports.

And since it's in your head now anyway, happy Friday.

(AP Photo)

March 11, 2010

Worst.Year.Ever.

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Danielle Pletka laments the end of American civilization as we know it:

Consider that the president’s own staff can’t gin up a single special relationship with a foreign leader and that the once “special relationship” with the United Kingdom is in tatters (note the latest contretemps over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s bizarre intervention on the Falkland Islands); that neither China nor Russia will back the United States’s push for sanctions against Iran; that Iran, it seems, doesn’t want to “sit down” with the Obama administration and chat; that the “peace process” the president was determined to revive is limping pathetically, in no small amount due to missteps by the United States; that one of the key new relationships of the 21st century (advanced by the hated George W. Bush)—with India—is a total mess; that the hope kindled in the Arab world after Obama’s famous Cairo speech has dimmed; that hostility to America’s AfPak special envoy Richard Holbrooke is the only point of agreement between Delhi, Islamabad, and Kabul; that there isn’t a foreign ministry in Europe with a good word to say about working with the Obama White House; that there is a narrative afoot that began with the Obama apologia tour last year and will not go away: America is in decline.

Too many of these problems can be sourced back to the arrogance of the president and his top advisers. Many of Obama’s foreign policy soldiers are serious, keen, and experienced, but even they are afraid to speak to foreigners, to meet with Congress, or to trespass on the policy making politburo in the White House’s West Wing. Our allies are afraid of American retreat and our enemies are encouraged by that fear. George Bush was excoriated for suggesting that the nations of the world are either with us or against us. But there is something worse than that Manichean simplicity. Barack Obama doesn’t care whether they’re with us or against us.

And that's in just one year! Imagine how much he'll have ruined by 2012!

Needless to say, I find all of this to be a bit exaggerated, and even a bit disingenuous. Keep in mind that many once thought it cute or tough to alienate and insult allies; designating them as 'old' and 'new' Europe, for instance. When the Bush administration ruffled feathers it was decisive leadership; when Obama does it it's the collapse of Western society as we know it. Pick your hyperbole, I suppose.

After eight years in office, did President Bush actually leave us with a clear policy on ever-emerging China? How about the so-called road map for peace? How'd that work out? Did President Bush manage to halt Iranian nuclear enrichment, or did he simply leave Iran in a stronger geopolitical position vis-à-vis Iraq and Afghanistan?

Pletka attributes many of these perceived failings to "arrogance." But it has been well documented that the previous administration was also stubborn, resistant to consultation and set in its ways. How then, if Ms. Pletka is indeed correct, has this changed with administrations?

Pletka scoffs at the president's insistence that policy is "really hard," but he's right - as was George W. Bush when he said it. Perhaps, just perhaps, the problem isn't what our presidents have failed to do, but what we expect them to do in an increasingly multipolar, or even nonpolar world?

(AP Photo)

A Multipolar Mess?

Nikolas Gvosdev writes:

Two years ago, Washington was abuzz once again with the prospects for a “League of Democracies” that would support U.S. global leadership. But in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated Burma/Myanmar, a very clear rift opened up between the democracies of the advanced north and west, which advocated an intervention on humanitarian grounds, and the democracies of the south and east, which proved to be far more receptive to China’s call for defending state sovereignty. In the Doha round of trade talks and in the ongoing climate change negotiations, the leading democracies of the south and east—Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, India and Indonesia among them—have tended to line up with Beijing instead of joining Washington’s banner.

The entire National Interest piece is worth a read, but regarding this snippet I would argue that if it's a "League of Pliancy" Washington had hoped for, then perhaps it should start viewing the world the way Vladimir Putin does. A key tenet of President Bush's so-called freedom agenda was that a more democratic world meant a safer world. I'm sure that's true. But it also means a more pluralistic world; one with many voices, and many interests.

This world could be a great place to live, if there were actually an international system to help guide and support emerging democracies alongside the already ensconced ones. But this is one of the freedom agenda's key failings: more democracy means more interests, which of course makes it harder for countries, such as the United States, that are used to dealing with more pliant actors.

Interests and emerging democrats will continue to overlap and conflict in the coming years, which is why it's imperative that our public officials learn how to lead in an increasingly multipolar tug of war around the globe. From what we've seen so far, I wouldn't hold your breath for such nuanced understanding in 2010 or 2012.

UPDATE:

Larison adds his own thoughts to the multipolarity vs. exceptionalism debate, and calls a bluff on Obama's neoconservative critics:

To take their criticism seriously, we would have to believe that his critics accept the reality and inevitability of multipolarity, and we would have to believe that they also accept the relative decline in American power that this entails. Of course, they don’t really accept either of these things. For the most part, they do not acknowledge the structural political reasons for resistance to Obama’s initiatives, and they recoil from any suggestion that America needs to adjust to a changing world. They locate the fault for any American decline entirely with Obama, because he fails to be sufficiently strong in championing U.S. interests. “Decline is a choice,” Krauthammer says, and he accuses Obama of having chosen it.

March 8, 2010

President Obama Polling Well on National Security

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A new poll from Third Way (which bills itself as the "leading moderate think tank of the progressive movement) has some findings on how the public views President Obama's handling of national security. Overall, it looks like they're enjoying pretty solid favorable across most of the major issues. The findings show pretty strong approval for the administration's handling of national security (58% approve vs. 39% disapprove); fighting terrorism ( 55% vs. 41%), Afghanistan (58% vs. 37%), Iraq (52% vs 41%), and leading the military (57% vs. 39%).

Where they take a hit is Iran (43% approve to 48% disapprove) and interrogation of terror suspects (46% to 49%). When asked whether Obama is doing a better job than President Bush on national security, 39% said he was vs. 31% who said he was not.

Update: Should have noted this:

But those numbers were down from levels in the 60s that were recorded by the same group last May. Fewer respondents now say they view Obama's handling of national-security issues as better than that of his predecessor George W. Bush -- Obama's margin here has shrunk from 22 to just 5 percent.

That's the Cable's gloss on Third Way's read of the findings. Thanks Pat.
(AP Photo)

February 28, 2010

Health Care and American Power, Ctd.

Last week, Kevin began to debunk two recent articles - one by the Times' Anatole Kaletsky and the other an article on recent statements by Sec. Hillary Clinton - which boldly argue that the death of current U.S. health care legislation will mean the inevitable death of America's influence around the world.

Clinton's argument is that ObamaCare's failure will signal to the rest of the world that American government is broken, and that this perception will adversely affect foreign countries' views on whether America still has the capacity to "move forward" and lead on international issues.  Money quote: "Their view does color whether the United States — not just the president, but our country — is in a position going forward to demonstrate the kind of unity and strength and effectiveness that I think we have to in this very complex and dangerous world."

Kaletsky takes an even harsher line and argues that the demise of ObamaCare will dismantle the American economy, and by extension, America's influence in the world.  He writes:

If nothing is done to change the US healthcare system, it can be stated with mathematical certainty that the US Government and many leading US companies will be driven into bankruptcy, a fate that befell General Motors and Chrysler largely because of their inability to meet retired workers’ contractually guaranteed medical costs....

Gridlock over healthcare would imply similar stalemates on taxes, public spending, the budget, macroeconomic stimulus and financial reform.  As a result, an active response to any future financial crisis might become impossible.  Even worse, any important action to control US government borrowing could be ruled out.

Alrighty then.  Kevin did a great job dismantling these arguments from the foreign policy angle by providing some excellent historical perspective on the issue, so I'm just going to weigh in from the international trade and economics angle.

My conclusion in short: Clinton's and Kaletsky's arguments are nonsense.

Continue reading "Health Care and American Power, Ctd." »

February 26, 2010

Health Care and American Power

In response to my post from yesterday, our friends over at the sans-green Daily Dish send along this Times piece by Anatole Kaletsky. In it, Kaletsky argues that the future of the American economy - and thus, American leadership around the world - rests on the results of yesterday's health care summit in Washington:

If nothing is done to change the US healthcare system, it can be stated with mathematical certainty that the US Government and many leading US companies will be driven into bankruptcy, a fate that befell General Motors and Chrysler largely because of their inability to meet retired workers’ contractually guaranteed medical costs.

Today’s summit represents Mr Obama’s last chance to find a way forward, either by shaming some Republicans into supporting him or by embarrassing his own perennially divided Democratic Party into uniting around a single plan. If he is unable to do this, he will have almost no chance of passing any significant legislation on any other issue—– not on energy, budgetary responsibility, macroeconomic management or even on such seemingly popular issues as bank regulation and jobs.

In short, Mr Obama has staked his entire presidency on today’s summit.

I don't know that this passes political or economic muster. I am no economist, so all I'll add here is that, to my knowledge, the largest economy in continental Europe, Germany, has been dealing with an aging and entitled work force for years. While economic discontent at home can of course impact all forms of policy - including foreign - I don't know that it has had any effect at all on Germany's role in Europe and around the world, respectively. On the contrary, Angela Merkel seems to have become more globally assertive in the face of Western financial crisis.

As for the politics, I believe the general consensus is that yesterday's summit moved no one and only further entrenched actors and voters in their respective camps.

Kaletsky goes on:

Gridlock over healthcare would imply similar stalemates on taxes, public spending, the budget, macroeconomic stimulus and financial reform. As a result, an active response to any future financial crisis might become impossible. Even worse, any important action to control US government borrowing could be ruled out. If the financial markets seriously reached this conclusion, all the debates about government debt and public spending in Britain, Greece and other countries would be a waste of breath. A genuine loss of confidence in America’s fiscal outlook would create a financial crisis so horrific that actions by the British or European governments would be swept away like beach huts in a tsunami.

[/hyperbole]

Did the United States not fight and win a world war in the face of economic depression and peril? Did economic ebb and flow affect the way in which the world perceived American leadership during the Cold War, or during the current War on Terrorism? Perhaps it did, which is why I open the floor up here to trade and economy wonks to fill in the gaps.

But I remain incredulous.

February 25, 2010

Is Health Care Reform Hurting America Abroad?

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Hillary Clinton goes there:

"We are always going to have differences between the executive and legislative branch, but we have to be attuned to how the rest of the world sees the functioning of our government, because it's an asset," the secretary told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on state, foreign operations and related programs.

"People don't understand the way our system operates. They just don't get it," she said. "Their view does color whether the United States — not just the president, but our country — is in a position going forward to demonstrate the kind of unity and strength and effectiveness that I think we have to in this very complex and dangerous world."

"As we sell democracy — and we are the lead democracy of the world — I want people to know that we have checks and balances, but we also have the capacity to move," she said.

This is a peculiar line of thinking from the secretary and, as my colleague Greg put it in private conversation, a rather "Cheney-esque" sort of comment to make.

I just finished watching all 19 hours of today's health care summit, and the feelings I'm left with resemble something closer to boredom, exhaustion and irritation; fear and despair haven't quite sunk in yet, at least not the kind that legitimate democrats (with a little 'd') like those in Russia and Iran must deal with on a daily basis. I'm guessing they'd love to have our tedious deliberation and onerous amounts of free speech in their respective countries.

Seems like little more than an inappropriate political jab by Clinton.

(AP Photo)

February 18, 2010

Has Obama's Engagement Flipped China?

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David Shorr at Democracy Arsenal thinks I'm preemptively stealing the Obama administration's thunder by crediting Saudi arm twisting for getting China to sign onto Iran sanctions (if they do):

I can understand the argument that the Saudis get credit for pushing the sanctions across the finish line, but this analysis applies a pretty steep discount to all the earlier diplomatic work.

A fair point and I should clarify that if we define "engagement" to mean realigning the material incentives that confront the nations considering sanctions against Iran, then yes, the administration will deserve credit for effective diplomacy if China signs onto tough sanctions.

But if we define engagement to mean what I took the administration and its supporters to mean, that President Obama's efforts to improve America's image abroad have made cooperation on Iran sanctions more probable, than I'm not convinced. First, it posits a relationship between global public opinion and the decisions of leaders of autocratic states that I do not believe exists. Second, it holds that all that was missing on the part of the U.S. was a "good faith" effort to engage the Iranians to show China and Russia that Iran was truly intransigent.

But were China and Russia really holding off on sanctions because they felt the U.S. was insufficiently sincere in its efforts to reach a negotiated settlement? Or did they take a look at what they stood to gain and lose and decided they had more to lose through sanctions and then used whatever excuse was handy to gum up the works?

Shorr believes that the Saudis are dragging China across the finish line, as if this is a final nudge before getting them on board. I don't think that's right. Dennis Ross, who is the White House point man on Iran, laid out his plan in Myth, Illusions and Peace for how to leverage the Saudis against China. Here's what Ross wrote:

China may seem to be a difficult case because it does receive about 13 percent of its oil from Iran. But make no mistake, if the Chinese had to choose between Iran and Saudi Arabia, they would choose the Saudis. They have massive new investments in Saudi petro-chemicals and are jointly financing new oil refineries, and the Saudis have agreed to fill a strategic petroleum reserve for China. Business is business, and the Chinese have a higher stake in Saudi Arabia than in Iran.

If Saudi Arabia is indeed cooperating with the U.S. in threatening China's economic interests in the Kingdom, and China relents, that is carrying them a considerable distance. And it has zero to do with how many people love America around the world or how sincere we were in dealing with Iran's clerical rulers.

But Shorr also holds out a more intriguing message that the U.S. should deliver to China - it is their responsibility to help the U.S. hem in Iran's nuclear ambitions in the name of regional stability:

The United States' strategy should be for all major powers to be status quo powers -- influential nations that share the responsibility for essential stability and a basically functioning world, as opposed to a more chaotic one.

I generally agree with this position but I worry about how it looks the more the relative balance of power shifts, as it is expected to do. We want China to be a "status quo" power because the present status quo is overwhelmingly favorable to us - it is one that we have shaped and led. Makes sense for us, but why is this a compelling message to China? And how much can we make it "worth their while" without starting to surrender important parts of that system?

As I understand it, the present status quo posits that the U.S. has a right to establish a worldwide constellation of military bases in the name of securing the global commons. As China's military capabilities improve, would we afford it room to do some of this policing, or view these moves as threatening our interests?

The U.S. has a right to travel halfway around the world to knock off a leader it objects to, without UN Security Council approval. Does China? The U.S. has the right to declare the Non Proliferation Treaty sacrosanct with respect to Iran, but not India. Does China get to carve out exceptions too? We can sell arms to autocrats in the Persian Gulf, who torture, decapitate, lash and crucify people, but China is being "irresponsible" in dealing with Africa's thuggish leaders. We can proclaim loudly and repeatedly that we have devised the best system of government and will see to it that it is spread everywhere - for the sake of our very security. China, presumably, enjoys no such missionary mandate.

Having China enhance the world's stability means that they'll embrace Washington's policy goals, something they appear less inclined to do by the day. And while I think the "responsible stakeholder" rhetoric is a wise tact for the U.S., it's important to acknowledge that the idea of "international responsibility" - where responsibility is defined as signing onto the U.S. or Western agenda - is a conceit. We need to ask why, as she grows ever more powerful, would China want to lock in an arrangement where they are the junior partner in Washington's world order? If the shoe were on the other foot, would we be so satisfied?

(AP Photo)

Fighting & Fanning the Flames of Terrorism

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Is the Obama administration working at cross purposes in its battle with Islamic terrorism?

On the one hand, we have U.S. forces battling the Taliban in Helmand Province as part of an overall strategy to stabilize Afghanistan before a U.S. draw down begins in 2011. Thus far, the operation appears successful and is being complimented by a number of high-profile Taliban arrests in cooperation with Pakistan. India and Pakistan are engaged in peace talks. By all appearances, the administration's approach to South Asia is bearing (provisional) fruit.

Yet move to the Middle East and the position looks quite different. The administration failed - spectacularly and publicly - in its early efforts to jump start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. More importantly, it is moving to bulk up its forward military forces in the region in an effort to contain Iran.

It is a well documented fact that the presence of foreign military forces in the Middle East is a driver of terrorism. American forces stationed in Saudi Arabia to contain Iraq were a staple of al Qaeda propaganda throughout the 1990s so much so that former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (hardly one to "blame America") cited their removal as one of the salutary effects of the Iraq invasion (never mind that that move injected orders of magnitude more troops into the region). It would be foolish to believe that the U.S. could undertake a similar buildup to contain Iran and not court the same wrath. But that is what the Obama administration is doing. It is fighting and hopefully winning a tactical battle in Afghanistan (and perhaps more if it does reorient the geopolitics of Pakistan and India) while entrenching the dangerous status quo in the Middle East that has driven Arab jihadists into the Pakistani hinterlands in the first place.

Hopefully the terrorist threat is now small enough that even with the negative dynamic in place in the Middle East we can contain it through intelligence work and homeland security. But such a reactive posture is bound to fail on occasion.

(AP Photo)

February 16, 2010

How Americans Think the World Sees Them

According to Gallup, Americans are feeling positive about their position in the world:


After five years when fewer than half of Americans believed the United States was seen favorably in the eyes of the world, Gallup's decade-long trend lines on this measure have again crossed. Fifty-one percent now say the U.S. is viewed favorably, up from 45% a year ago.

Interestingly, while President Obama is credited with reversing America's poor image abroad, the trend lines below seem worrisome:

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February 12, 2010

Ukraine's Post-Election To-Do List

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By David J. Kramer

KYIV, Ukraine—Contrary to earlier polls, Ukraine’s presidential election turned out to be much closer than expected. After the run-off held on February 7, opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych claimed victory over Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko—at last count, he had a 3 percent lead—but Tymoshenko was not ready to concede. She is expected to file court challenges over claims of fraud in individual poll­ing stations, but international observers across the board, including the delegation I led for the International Republican Institute, deemed this election generally free and fair and any problems not to have been systemic in nature.

Tymoshenko, of course, has every right to pursue her legal options, but it would be unfortunate if her efforts led to weeks of squabbling and political paralysis. Ukrainians have had enough of that over the past few years, when they grew disillusioned with those associated with the 2004 Orange Revolution. Based on the preliminary assessment of foreign observers, neither problems that may have occurred on Election Day nor a controversial change made to the electoral law three days before the election had an appreciable impact on the election itself.

Barring the unexpected, Ukraine will see Yanukovych assume the reins as presi­dent. There are some in the West who will be unhappy with the election outcome. They will see Yanukovych’s victory as the final nail in the Orange Revolution’s coffin and will want to keep their distance from Ukraine. This would be exactly the wrong approach to take. Leaders in the West need to engage the new president and his team immediately after he as­sumes office. Here are some things they should do in the near term:

* Invite Yanukovych to the West. U.S. President Barack Obama will be hosting a nuclear security summit in April, and Yanukoych’s participation in that would be a good start. EU countries should also reach out to him out of recognition that Ukraine is a vital neighbor.

* Visit Kyiv. Western leaders should make Kyiv a key place to visit, not on the way to or from Moscow but on its own.

* Strengthen bilateral commissions on a level comparable to what Obama established with Russia last year. Dealing with Ukraine can be frustrating, but the alternative of keeping a distance is even worse, especially when Moscow will be reaching out aggressively to the new government in Kyiv.

* For the European Union, move forward on finalizing a free trade agreement with Ukraine and visa liberalization. It should stress that future membership in the European Union, while not in the offing in the near-term, is a possibility. The door to the European Union must remain open to Ukraine if it undertakes the necessary reforms over the next few years.

* Avoid pressing on membership in NATO, especially since the majority of Ukrainians do not support NATO membership at this time. Injecting this issue into the political debate in Ukraine now would be distracting and counterproductive, but NATO should keep its door open, too.

* Push for resumption of International Monetary Fund (IMF) lending if Ukraine’s parliament and leaders stop their inflationary and unaffordable budgetary and fiscal policies.

Continue reading "Ukraine's Post-Election To-Do List" »

February 7, 2010

Palin on Iran

Governor Palin certainly isn't the first to suggest a strike on Iran, so that's not really news. But there's a puzzling flippancy in the governor's foreign policy rhetoric that I think deserves some more nuanced attention.

I think - and hope - the governor will expand upon her foreign policy vision in the coming weeks and months, especially if she's truly considering a presidential bid in 2012.

(h/t Think Progress)

January 28, 2010

State of the Union

I think Max Boot is right to bemoan the lack of foreign policy focus in President Obama's State of the Union address. To me, the portions on foreign policy seemed scatter-shot and ad-hoc.

That said, this from the National Review doesn't seem right:

This is an administration that has turned its back on inconvenient victims from Tehran to Tibet to Israel. An administration that has climbed on board the U.N. Human Rights Council, despite its being a tool of Islamic states for defeating rights. And yet the president disingenuously lectured: “America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity.”

I hate to break it to the National Review, but every presidential administration turns their back on victims of oppression and injustice worldwide. Such is the way of things. There is, alas, no shortage of international injustices and only so much the president can do. President Obama is, after all, President of the United States. As a partisan cudgel, this tact just seems silly.

"Growing Consequences" in 2010

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I was somewhat surprised by how little attention was paid to Iran in the president's State of the Union Address. In a speech that was over 7,000 words along, the word "Iran" was only said, by my count, three times. This doesn't come as a total shock however, as every wonk and his mother predicted this speech would be heavy on domestic policy (Max Boot notes that foreign policy accounted for just 13% of policy items covered in the speech).

This doesn't necessarily mean a whole lot, because if the amount of time a topic received during the SOTU were in any way approximate to the amount of governing and legislation it earned, we'd all be powering our cars and homes on switchgrass by now. But what last night's cursory take on Iran does tell me is that the administration still hasn't found a way to reconcile its policy of engagement with the unrest in Iran. Supporting "the human rights of the women marching through the streets of Iran" is not only vague, but it may contradict the president's promise of "growing consequences" should the Iranian regime continue to snub the dictates of the international community in 2010. If those consequences are sanctions - be them "crippling" or targeted - they will very likely hurt poor and working-class Iranians - including those women marching in the streets.

And while I appreciate the president's effort to wed his Iran policy to nonproliferation - an argument I've in fact made here in the past - you have to set and stick to deadlines in order for that to be a viable pairing, otherwise the message the international community sends to other would-be nuclear powers is one of disorganization and weakness.

(AP Photo)

January 27, 2010

Live Blog Recap: State of the Union Address


We broke down his speech, its substance and peculiarities, as well as the response offered by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.


View the SOTU

For those who somehow have no access to either TV or Radio, but do have access to a computer or the internet, you can watch the State of the Union live, at whitehouse.gov.

Is Obama Doing Iran Right?

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CAP's Matt Duss thinks President Obama's policy on Iran is unsettling the leadership:


Looking over President Obama’s evolving Iran policy over the last year, I don’t think the president and his team have gotten nearly enough credit for how they’ve calibrated an approach, especially in the wake of the June 12 elections, designed to undercut both the Iranian regime’s international and domestic propaganda, by insisting on the possibility of a deal, and the effect that his has had of exacerbating divisions among Iran’s ruling elite.

One of the reasons I think the administration is not getting credit is that the stated goal of its Iran policy is not to produce divisions among the leadership but to convince them to abandon their nuclear weapons program. Perhaps these divisions are a necessary precondition to that end, although they don't appear at the moment to have measurably improved our chances of a negotiated settlement.

If the Obama administration had set its sights lower, it would likely be able to claim some credit for unnerving Iran's senior leadership. But since they themselves set the benchmark, it's against that standard that they will have to be judged.

(AP Photo)

January 26, 2010

Video of the Day

Vice President Biden seems to think he knows something about Middle Eastern politics. Iraqi's apparently disagree:

Some will view this as another rejection of the Obama administration, but primarily it is a demonstration of the fierce independence that most Arabs and Iraqis have with regards to their own affairs. It is possible that this disagreement could devolve into violence, but there does not seem to be much that the U.S. could do to stop it. It's disingenuous however to represent the Iraqi government as currently divided with "pro-" and "anti-" U.S. branches. Clearly there are going to be factions within any democratic government, but since Iraq is a partial parliamentary system, the parliament chooses the president, and therefore minimizes the differences across branches.

For more video on Iraq check out the RCW Videos page.

Tweeting Obama's SOTU

In addition to live blogging tomorrow night's State of the Union Address, the RCW editors will also be tweeting the evening's events alongside our blog. You can follow Greg Scoblete and yours truly on Twitter throughout the night for our pithy thoughts and 140-character conjecture.

You can also follow the best and brightest journalists, analysts and orgs from all over the foreign policy Twitterverse on RealClearWorld's Twitter hub page.

January 21, 2010

Arab League Views of U.S.

Mohamed Younis at Gallup surveys Arab League opinion of U.S. leadership:

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Younis concludes:

While approval ratings of U.S. leadership alone cannot serve as a proxy for evaluating U.S.-Arab world relations, Gallup's latest polling in the Arab world suggested some improvement at the time of the survey. Surprises were found in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, where opinions improved for the first time since the Bush administration. However, in Saudi Arabia and Algeria, no statistical change in approval ratings of U.S. leadership took place between the two polling periods in 2009. While the president's focus on outreach to the Arab and Muslim worlds may have had a positive effect on the attitudes of many, his ability to follow through on many of the proposed programs for cooperation and development will be crucial to adding more Arab countries to the list of those where a majority approve of the leadership of the United States.

January 20, 2010

U.S, Japan and an Obama Doctrine

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A favorite past time of pundits and analysts is the attempt to divine an "Obama doctrine." And while the focus has mostly been on his speeches and his position on America's adversaries, I think a more telling clue lies with how the administration treats U.S. allies, specifically Japan. Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the U.S-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security and it's a fine time to revisit the foundations of the alliance.

Here's Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department, answering questions from reporters about how ties between the two allies have been strained of late:


This is nothing in comparison to what we faced in 1995 and 1996. Let’s keep in mind a few basic things. In the last several weeks, we have seen opinion polling in Japan about the United States and the U.S.-Japan alliance which are the best polls in history ever taken, with support in Japan of the United States in the 80 percentile, 85-86 percent – just enormous – and 70s for other aspects of our alliance. And so if you compare and contrast that with 1995 and 1996, after the tragic rape of the young schoolgirl in Okinawa, when most of Japan had deep, serious, and sustained questions about the viability of the U.S.-Japan alliance, I would argue with you that we are in a much stronger, very stable, and ultimately strong position for the continuation of the U.S.-Japan security relationship.

And it is also the case that as an alliance, it has demonstrated enormous adaptability. It has gone from a situation where it was originally aimed at fears of Soviet expansionism and adventurism in Asia, now it is basically aimed at no specific or particular nation. It serves as the foundation to bring a degree of confidence to the Asia-Pacific region. It’s been enormously successful in this regard. And no, the challenges we face today aren’t – I mean, there were times where we were in offices in the 1990s where people were worried that the entire fabric of the alliance was coming apart. We do not face challenges like that today. This is a process that many have called for, for years, that democratization of Japanese foreign and security policies, a need to explain more clearly to the Japanese public about the choices and challenges that Japan faces, not only in the region but working with the United States. And I think we’re very confident we’re going to get through this and, at the end of it, be stronger because of the process.

A key plank of American national security policy has been to keep allies from re-nationalizing their security policies. Dependency on the U.S., not self-sufficiency, was the watchword. Such a posture was naturally unsustainable, it's hard to imagine nations like Japan and Germany not eventually trying to carve out greater freedom of action for themselves. It's also clearly unnecessary. The Soviet threat that precipitated the strategy is gone and the idea that Eurasia will suddenly become inhospitable to American commerce seems a stretch, since we're already doing a brisk trade with the one nation - China - that could potentially pose a problem in that regard.

The key questions seems to be not whether the Obama administration will let Japan chart a more independent course, with the corresponding reduction of American influence over her national security affairs that entails. It's happening whether they want it to or not. But how they react, and whether they can institutionalize a new, more flexible relationship that affords Japan more freedom of action while still sustaining a strong alliance will be critical to watch. It could be the template for a major restructuring of America's relationship with the rest of the world - one that puts us on the glide path toward sustainability, not over-stretch.

See also: The U.S. and Japan issued a joint statement on the anniversary of the defense treaty, which can be read here.

(AP Photo)

January 14, 2010

Obama on Haiti

President Obama issued the following statement this morning on the relief efforts in Haiti:

Continue reading "Obama on Haiti" »

January 4, 2010

Admitting You Have a Problem

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Stephen Walt sounds off on the crotch-bomber:

Second, most of the commentary about the attack focused on the breakdown in security procedures and possible intelligence failures, but for me the real issue is to ask why groups like al Qaeda want to attack us in the first place. With a few exceptions, this is a question that rarely gets much scrutiny anymore; pundits just assume "terrorists" are inherently evil and that’s why they do evil things. (And some American extremists recommend that suspects like the Gitmo detainees be summarily executed without trial. I kid you not). But we really do need to spend some time asking why terrorists are targeting us, and whether we could alleviate (though not eliminate) the problem by adjusting some aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

In particular, I'm struck by the inability of most Americans to connect the continued risk of global terrorism with America's highly interventionist global policy. One can have a serious debate about whether that policy is the right one or not; my point is that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can behave this way and remain immune from any adverse consequences.

This is a point I've harped on as well and it's important to emphasize that the "most Americans" Walt refers to also includes senior officials in the previous and current administrations responsible for counter-terrorism policy. From Peter Baker's big piece in the Times today:

And so perhaps the biggest change Obama has made is what one former adviser calls the “mood music” — choice of language, outreach to Muslims, rhetorical fidelity to the rule of law and a shift in tone from the all-or-nothing days of the Bush administration. He is committed to taking aggressive actions to disrupt terrorist cells, aides said, but he also considers his speech in Cairo to the Islamic world in June central to his efforts to combat terrorism. “If you asked him what are the most important things he’s done to fight terrorism in his first year, he would put Cairo in the top three,” Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, told me....

....Yet even some of the Bush appointees were ready for change, appealing to Obama to revamp the struggle. “Mr. President-elect, we’re doing things very well, but we’re losing the messaging war,” Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told him a week after the election, according to an official informed about the session. A significant share of the global population thought America was at war against the rest of the world, Leiter maintained. “You have an opportunity to change that message, to change how the struggle is perceived,” he said.

Obama was receptive to that mandate. “We’re going to do that,” he replied....

The entire subtext of the Obama administration argument is that the principle U.S. policies that catalyze Islamic terrorism were implemented circa 2001. True, those policies poured gasoline on the fire, but the fire was burning before George W. Bush took office. The kindling was American support for autocratic Middle Eastern governments, its support for Israel, and stationing of combat forces in the Middle East. Combine that with Islamic fundamentalism and you have the combustion that is the global terrorist threat. It is frankly delusional to think that a mere speech, however well intentioned, can suppress these flames.

The basic problem, as Walt eludes to, is that Washington has zero interest in re-examining these policies in light of the terrorist threat associated with them. And so instead we pretend that the two are fundamentally disconnected. It's not a matter of American policy making people angry, the Obama administration seems to be saying, it's a matter of them not understanding American intentions. We're "losing the messaging war" - and so a good speech can shore things up.

This mindset is not only patronizing to its intended subjects in the Arab and Muslim world, it's patronizing to Americans.

What the Obama administration cannot, apparently, do, is have an adult conversation with the American people about U.S. policy in the Middle East. Why not simply say that on balance the threat from international terrorism is a small price to pay to maintain American hegemony in the Middle East? It's what they obviously believe. And not without merit - American hegemony not only contributes to oil's safe transit to world markets but ensures that other states - particularly potential competitors such as China - have to rely on America to keep the flow going, thus giving us crucial leverage in the zero-sum world of international politics. They could argue that the costs imposed on the U.S. by terrorism are less than those that would result from a policy change in the Middle East. Given the mix of motivations that propel someone to actually become a terrorist, they could also argue that the causal links between American policy and Islamic terrorism are so diffuse (and the problem already so widespread) that an American policy change at this late stage wouldn't even work to reduce the threat.

None of that would be very difficult for President Obama, who is, if nothing else, an effective communicator. But instead, this is all ignored in favor of a self-serving and infantilizing narrative that it's all a big misunderstanding - that we have a "communications" problem.

(AP Photos)

Through a Partisan Haze

Former Bush administration homeland security official Frances Townsend offers her take on how to handle the burgeoning jihadist threat from Yemen:

The Obama administration needs to take a clear, tough line with Yemen: Take care of the terrorism problem within your borders so you are no longer a threat to the United States and our allies in the region, or allow the international community to come in and clean it up for you. The time for polite diplomacy is long past.

Matthew Yglesias isn't impressed:

But is excessive politeness really the reason Barack Obama hasn’t threatened a full-scale invasion of Yemen unless the Yemeni government undertakes unspecified measures to “take care of the terrorist problem”?

It seems to me that just 18 months ago the President was one George W Bush, a discredited and unpopular figure who liked to go out of his way to be rude to foreign countries, and even there these tactics weren’t being employed. Why? Well because when the right was in power a “Yemen hawk” inside the administration would have had to say what, exactly, she wanted done and what the risks and tradeoffs might be. But from an out of power perspective, it’s party time. On to Yemen!

While this is unquestionably true, I don't think sketching out maximalist "solutions" has anything to do with being a "hawk" per-se but being a partisan operative. If you are primarily motivated by a desire to wound political opponents, position yourself for a future job in an administration or protect your legacy, you will make arguments in the fashion that Townsend does above. (And in her defense, the format was not the place for a long discourse on "what should be done with Yemen." Perhaps her specific ideas have a lot more merit than a few paragraphs can reveal.)

We saw this with much of the Democratic party and Afghanistan in the 2008 election. There was a lot of enthusiasm for fighting on the "central front" of the war on terrorism when it was convenient to burnish Obama's Commander in Chief credentials. When it came to actually making the decision, there was considerably less enthusiasm for a troop surge. Ditto Sudan, where there was a lot of tough talk before the Obama administration took office about stopping the genocide, and not much since.

Partisanship puts demands on our foreign policy debate that are hard for the subject to bear: it reduces complexities to Manichean certainties and it offers easy solutions to problems that can't be solved - and that's when it's not being blatantly dishonest. There's no escaping it, it's just the way the political incentives work.

December 31, 2009

The Luxury of Nuclear Weapons

Andrew Sullivan writes:

The obvious aim, it seems to me, of the Revolutionary Guards is not to nuke al-Aqsa, but to use a nuclear capacity to immunize their terrorism in the region, to balance Israel's nuclear monopoly, to scare the crap out of the Saudis and Egyptians, and to shore up their control at home. I see this as an inevitable coming-of-age of Iran as a regional power, and although there is an obvious and acute danger that nuclearization could entrench some of the worst elements of the regime (and they don't get much worse than Ahmadinejad), the brutal truth is: we do not have the tools to stop it. One day, a nuclear Iran, if led by men and women legitimately elected by the people of Iran, could be our friend, not enemy - and a much more reliable and stable friend than the Sunni Arab autocracies we are currently shoring up. I believe, in short, that in my lifetime we will see a democratic Iran, led by the generation that took to the streets this year. And I believe vigilant containment is the only realistic way at this point to get there.

Why is it that no one talks extensively about human rights in North Korea, or China or Russia? Why does it make sense that Burma's military junta would pursue a nuclear weapons program?

The answer is rather simple: security. As Andrew points out, the likelihood of Iran actually using one of these weapons should they even attain the capability is slim. The problem is that the very possession of these weapons allows Iran into an unspoken club of hush, hush humanitarianism. Sure, we all know bad things go on in the aforementioned countries, but what can we actually do about it?

If Iran acquires a nuclear weapon the regional dynamic, as Sullivan concedes, would immediately change. In order to offset a regional arms race, the United States would essentially need to cover the entire Middle East in its so-called nuclear umbrella. Strategy would shift from engagement to containment. And this is the important point: when you seek to simply contain, you are accepting losses within already compromised boundaries. In this instance, that lost territory is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I hope--and pray--to see a free and democratic Iran in my lifetime, just as Andrew does. But the chances of that happening should this awful and rotten regime get a nuclear weapon would be rather slim. If the casual observer thinks this government is oppressive now, just wait until it is intoxicated with the impunity of the nuclear womb.

Moreover, any hopes of resurrecting nuclear nonproliferation can get kissed goodbye. As I wrote earlier this month, what Obama is trying to do here is admirable--that being, restore some semblance of international order and process for dealing with rogue states that seek nuclear weapons. If the policy toward nuclear Iran is mere containment, then Iran has already won.

What then will be the strategy for the next nuclear aspirant? Containment? War? Something else? The fact that there's no viable answer to those questions is the problem, and it will only get worse if Tehran gets the bomb.

Removing All Options from the Table

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Ray Takeyh writes:

The modest demands of establishment figures such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, including for the release of political prisoners and restoring popular trust (via measures such as respecting the rule of law and opening up the media), was dismissed by an arrogant regime confident of its power.

Disillusioned elites and protesters who had taken to the streets could have been unified, or their resentment assuaged, by a pledge by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for the next election to be free and fair, for government to become more inclusive or for limits to be imposed on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's prerogatives. Today, such concessions would be seen as a sign of weakness and would embolden the opposition. The regime no longer has a political path out of its predicament.

I believe Takeyh is mostly right here. The problem however is that the Green Movement has lacked a political option from the get-go--hence the demonstrations and the unrest. Both sides have the option of violence, but that's a leap I don't think the Green Movement is prepared to take. As Takeyh notes, the regime has been mostly reserved and cautious in how it has handled the demonstrations, leaving it in a kind of uncertain limbo: it won't fully crackdown, nor will it capitulate.

He goes on to say:

The Obama administration should take a cue from Ronald Reagan and persistently challenge the legitimacy of the theocratic state and highlight its human rights abuses. The notion that harsh language militates against a nuclear accord is false. At this juncture, the only reason Tehran may be receptive to an agreement on the nuclear issue is to mitigate international pressures while it deals with its internal insurrection. Even if the regime accommodates international concerns about its nuclear program, the United States must stand firm in its support for human rights and economic pressure against the Revolutionary Guards and other organs of repression.

Let's keep in mind that Tehran, to date, has balked at even the most modest of uranium transfer arrangements, all the while withstanding demonstrations and internal unrest. These are men who cut their teeth during the war with Iraq, while at the same time fighting violent insurgents at home. None of this is new to them.

And "standing firm" requires a key commodity: leverage. Reagan had the leverage to simultaneously talk and talk tough because he had a stockpile of nuclear weapons and missiles to back up that talk. Were Obama to follow Takeyh's advice, and premise nuclear negotiations on human rights violations in Iran, then he'd essentially be removing all options but one from the proverbial table: attack.

Russia and China will not back a negotiating strategy intended to support the Green Movement. Thus, the United States will be left--once again--unilaterally lecturing a regime, and with only one remaining option to make good on that lecturing.

So are we prepared in 2010 to take that leap? Do we toss multilateral pressure on the scrapheap and ready for another war? This is the inevitable path if we lose sight of how fragile the international coalition is on Iran.

UPDATE: It's also, I would add, important to take note of the folks who are embracing Takeyh's suggestion. Some are what I would call the usual suspects, and they dragged us into one war based on false pretenses and then attempted to re-package it as a humanitarian endeavor. We know where they fall on the attack or talk question, but where then do their unlikely bedfellows reside?

(AP Photo)

December 30, 2009

War on Terror, Ctd.

I honestly cannot fathom how people are peddling the idea that President Obama has taken a "law enforcement" view of the "war on terror." Just to recap:

1. He is sending 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, bringing the total number of forces he has sent into combat in Afghanistan to approximately 47,000 and the total troop count to 100,000.

2. He has stepped up Predator Drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal region by orders of magnitude more than his predecessor. Those drones fire hellfire missiles, not subpoenas.

3. He authorized a special forces raid in Somalia to kill an Al Qaeda operative.

4. He reportedly authorized military cooperation in two airstrikes in Yemen that killed north of 64 people and is considering a wider military retaliation against terrorist targets there.

I understand a lot of this "terrorism as law enforcement" business is meant as a partisan smear, but it's manifestly and absurdly dishonest. It's true that the administration has sought to change some of the legal aspects of how we treat detainees, what legal rights they're afforded, and whether they'll stay in Gitmo, but any individual with a shred of intellectual honesty cannot look at the administration's record on counter-terrorism and conclude that they view it simply as a matter of arrest warrants and Miranda rights.

Leadership

During the protests following Iran's June 12 fraudulent elections, Robert Kagan castigated President Obama as being objectively on the side of Iran's tyrannical rulers for his reluctance to rhetorically embrace the protesters.

Now, if I were a neoconservative bent on engaging in the worst sort of demagogic rhetoric, I'd say that lawmakers trying to gin up fear about America's capacity to deal with terrorism in the aftermath of the failed terrorist attempt are objectively pro Al Qaeda, because they're attempting to scare the American people and do the terrorists' work for them.

But instead I'll take the high road and just lament the fact that the first response from our political leaders to this plot was to fall on each other in partisan snipping.

December 22, 2009

Obama, the Prime Mover

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One of the chief criticisms I've read of President Obama is that he fancies himself the center of the universe. Funny, then, to read Jonathan Toobin confirm it, blaming President Obama for Syria's deepening hold over Lebanon:


All of which means that we can chalk up another defeat for the United States that can be put at the feet of Barack Obama’s fetish for diplomacy for its own sake. Like the opposition in Iran, the pro-independence Lebanese have been left in the lurch while Washington fecklessly pursues deals with dictators who have no intention of playing ball. And why should they, given the administration’s distaste for confrontations and its inability to rally international support for action on behalf of either a nuclear-free Iran or a free Lebanon?

Is it really the case that President Obama is the root cause of Syria's policy in Lebanon? That doesn't sound plausible to me. The Washington Institute's David Schenker offers a more nuanced take in the Weekly Standard:

Washington's increased diplomatic and military engagement with Damascus also appears to have had an effect, decreasing March 14 confidence in its most ardent supporter. Perhaps the leading factor in March 14 leadership's decision to return to Damascus, however, appears to be Saudi Arabia's equivocating. Riyadh had been a leading force in trying to dissuade Damascus from playing its traditionally pernicious role in Lebanon. Recently, however, Saudi appears to have made a concession on Lebanon in order to improve relations with Syria.

(AP Photos)

December 20, 2009

The Success of Copenhagen

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Two astute observers of international politics, Water Russell Mead and Leslie Gelb (leading the homepage today), draw the right conclusion: the Copenhagen summit was by in large a success and a harbinger of things to come. Here's Mead:

That’s our recipe for the future: split the difference between Europe and Asia in a way that works for us while opening the door to bad boys to come in from the cold — but otherwise freezing them out.

It reminds me of this:


If the U.S. proceeds along the course set by the Obama administration and defines leadership as the ability to bring other nations along its preferred path, then they should be prepared to define success down. "Solving" the world's problems, as Secretary Clinton suggested, is altogether a bridge too far. Instead, finding a globally acceptable, lowest-common-denominator outcome will be the order of the day (and even that won't be easy).

And there's nothing inherently wrong with that. By their very nature, the problems the administration has sought to address will be tackled collectively or they won't be tackled at all. On balance, it's better to have the wind of global opinion at your back, which Obama appears to enjoy for the moment.

But the administration should at least begin to put its (or rather, our) money where its multilateral mouth is. It's one thing to accept the fact that many global challenges will require the active assistance of other major powers to overcome. It's quite another to begin reconstituting America's global military posture and responsibilities to reflect that reality. If the Obama administration believes U.S. leadership in the 21st century means getting the cooperation of other nations, it should also make clear that America won't be left holding the bag (or the bill) if other nations don't step up to the plate.

It is very difficult to accept "half a loaf" but that's the nature of these things.

(AP Photos)

December 16, 2009

The Limits of Perception

Shadi Hamid wasn't thrilled with President Obama's Nobel acceptance speech:


Too many Arabs and Muslims hold the inverse of America’s opinion of itself: It is not a force for good, or even a burdened, yet flawed, protector of the international system, but rather an actor that has worked, in remarkably consistent fashion, to suppress and subjugate the people of the region.

Are Arabs and Muslims – or to a lesser extent Latin Americans and Europeans – justified in thinking this? It doesn’t matter. This is what they think. For them, that is the reality. So when Obama says something like “no matter how callously defined, neither America’s interests – nor the world’s – are served by the denial of human aspirations,” I like it and I want to hear more of it. It actually reminds me of Bush’s early 2005 speeches, and I mean that as a compliment, because they were great speeches (at least in written form) that promised a move away from our longstanding policy of unquestioning support for Arab dictators.

But Bush’s rhetoric introduced a cognitive dissonance that became so blatant that the whole edifice crumbled. I'm all for soaring rhetoric on human rights and democracy, and fashioning a more just international system, but only if we’re willing to back it up with real policy changes on the ground. And clearly we're not. [Emphasis mine]

I agree with the final sentiment, but not the bolded one. I think objective reality, and not just perception, matters. For instance, a percentage of influential Arab opinion believes that Israel/Jews were behind the 9/11 terror attacks - does it matter that this perception is objectively, demonstrably wrong? I would say that it does matter a great deal. We can't fashion a foreign policy in response to paranoia. I also wonder about the extent to which "public opinion" in countries with government-run media can really be trusted.

But that is a separate question from whether the Arab world has a legitimate case against U.S. foreign policy in the region. I'd say, with respect to support for dictators, they do. We can debate whether it remains in the U.S. interest to support dictators but it strikes me as counter-productive to both support them and profess our undying support for freedom everywhere. Better to more closely align our words with our deeds.

Does a Democratic Iran Mean a Nuclear Free Iran

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Jennifer Rubin criticizes Secretary Clinton's speech on human rights:

This is what passes for “smart” diplomacy. But it’s revealing. Never does it dawn on the Obami that human rights, support for democracy, and regime change might actually enhance our objectives and afford us a solution to the problem of an Islamic fundamentalist state’s acquisition of nuclear arms.
I'm not an "Obami" (whatever that is) but I would be interested in seeing this assertion substantiated. On what basis should we believe t