Your humble blogger is slammed with day job duties this week, but for your reading pleasure, do check out this debate I moderated between the Financial Times' Gideon Rachman (author of Zero-Sum World) and the Brookings Institution's Robert Kagan (author of The World America Made) on the future of American power.
WARNING: I fear I might stink as a moderator, as I conclude:
I hereby declare myself to be a uniter rather than a divider when it comes to moderating exchanges, thereby guaranteeing that The Powers That Be at will never ask me to do anything like this ever again.
Still, check it out for yourself and come to your own conclusion.
In an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Escape Artists, Noam Scheiber has a behind-the-scenes story in The New Republic about how the Obama administration mostly botched the debt ceiling negotiations with Republicans last year. I'm guessing that Scheiber's best sources were the Treasury folk, because they come off looking the best -- advising Obama to cut a deal with the Republicans in December 2010, telling him to not negotiate policy concessions to get a debt ceiling boost, and so forth. Obama did not listen to them, and we all know what happened. Scheiber goes on to note that after the debt ceiling drama of the summer, Obama learned to attack conservatives rather than compromise with them, thereby improving his political fortunes.
He closes the essay with the following:
For voters contemplating whether he deserves a second term, the question is less and less one of policy or even worldview than of basic disposition. Throughout his political career, Obama has displayed an uncanny knack for responding to existential threats. He sharpened his message against Hillary Clinton in late November 2007, just in time to salvage the Iowa caucuses and block her coronation. He condemned his longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright, just before Wright’s racialist comments could doom his presidential hopes. Once in office, Obama led two last-minute counteroffensives to save health care reform. But, in every case, the adjustments didn’t come until the crisis was already at hand. His initial approach was too passive and too accommodating, and he stuck with it far too long.
Given the booby traps that await the next president—Iranian nukes, global financial turmoil—this habit seems dangerously risky. Sooner or later, Obama may encounter a crisis that can’t be reversed at the eleventh hour. Is Obama’s newfound boldness on the economy yet another last-minute course-correction? Or has he finally learned a deeper lesson? More than just a presidency may hinge on the answer.
There are two big problems with this kind of formulation. The first is that, for all of Obama's stumbles and bumbles on the debt ceiling issue, it's hard to argue in retrospect that he lost that political fight. Since the debt ceiling dispute, Obama's approval numbers have moved north while Congress has become historically unpopular. The improving economy likely explains some of this -- but if that was the only part of the story then Congress' numbers should be rising as well.
It's not that Obama handled the debt ceiling talks terribly well -- it's just that Scheiber misses the point that the Republicans made an even bigger hash of things. Obama came off as someone willing to deal and the House GOP came off as a group of people looking forward to the apocalypse. Looking more reasonable that one's adversaries occasionally matters in domestic politics -- and it's not in Scheiber's account (full and fair disclosure: I would have been in agreement with Scheiber six months ago).
The more interesting question is whether there's any validity to Scheiber's larger point -- that Obama's initial passivity in responding to political crises suggests he's ill-prepared for handling global crises. Does Scheiber's pattern of how Obama responded to domestic political challenges match up with his foreign policy?
I think Scheiber has half a point. As I've noted in the past, the administration's first set of foreign policies were predicated on the same basic impulse that Obama had domestically: deals and bargains were possible in many parts of the globe. However, as the administration found itself rebuffed and frustrated by various international actors (Iran, China, etc.) it quickly pivoted to a more aggressive -- and more fruitful -- counterpunching approach. Similar to how the debt ceiling negotiations play out, Obama has benefited from his initial outreaches; he can say he tried the olive branch before turning to the stick. When it comes to global actors that Obama perceives as enemies or rivals, his administration has been pretty ruthless.
Where Scheiber might have a point is with how Obama has handled America's friends and allies. Obviously, these countries should have more common interests with the United States, so by and large they should be less obstreperous. When issues have flared up, however -- with Israel on housing settlements, with Europe on the sovereign debt crisis, with post-reset Russia on anything, and with G-20 allies on quantitative easing -- the administration seems slow-moving, awkward, and occasionally shocked that these countries might have interests that diverge from the United States.
Pressuring and cajoling allies is a tricky and delicate business. One would be hard-pressed to argue that the Bush administration did a great job of it. Still, as the latest iteration of the Eurocrisis plays out, Scheiber might have hit on the Achilles heel of Obama's foreign policy acumen.
What do you think?
The New Republic wouldn’t be soliciting my take if there was an easy solution to this policy conundrum. Indeed, Syria is such a tough nut to crack that I fear the best approach to the problem is to apply a Sherlock Holmes-style logic to it. When all of the impossible policy choices have been eliminated, only the improbable ones—however unpalatable they might be—are left to mull over.
Read the whole thing: I confess to not being happy with either of my suggested policies (buy off the Russians; arm the Free Syrian Army), but as I conclude, "the sad truth is that there is no good outcome, only different shades of terrible."
For some other policy suggestions, see Daniel Serwer and Caitlin Fitzgerald on the reverting-to-nonviolence option. This argument does have some support in the academic literature -- but I also think this option has been overtaken by events.
On the opposite side of the spectrum. I'd also recommend reading Dan Trombly's extended realpolitik cost-benefit analysis of myriad options and policy contingencies for Syria. His key paragraph:
The much more unpleasant strategic reality is that, whether foreign forces intervene or not, the U.S. receives little reward from hastening Assad’s downfall. An embattled Assad imposes just the same limitations on Syrian and Iranian threats to U.S. interests. Resources will have to be diverted from the proxies Iran supports through Syria to Syria itself as Iran tries to maintain its host’s viability. The loss of Assad’s regime would mean a rapid retrenchment in Iranian support, for sure, but this would likely be replaced by a proxy campaign against Syria’s new government and its foreign backers, or a redeployment of IRGC/QF assets to other theaters, probably against the U.S (if not both). Given that rapidly overthrowing Assad without major overt military action from a broad coalition of forces is a pipe dream anyway, the United States should consider contingency plans in which it works through, rather than against, the specter of protracted civil war. To be able to bleed Iran in Syria would, relative to the risks involved, be a far more significant strategic opportunity against Iranian power relative to the investment and risk than would be a major overt campaign to overthrow Assad outright. The more blood and treasure Iran loses in Syria – even if Assad stays in power longer – the weaker Iran will be.
This is cold -- but in the absence of rapid regime change, it's also spot-on. My only point of disagreement with Trombly is that he thinks supporting/arming/training the FSA is a bad idea, while I think it's a surefire way to achieve his preferred outcome. This wasn't the logic I used in my TNR essay, and it's one I'm reluctant to voice, but there it is.
What do you think?
Andrew Sullivan has a Newsweek cover story designed to
best allocate Tina Brown's resources or to wave a big red flag at conservatives make the case that Obama's tortoise-like strategy of slow but steady, focusing on the long haul, has left his excitable hare-like critics on the left and the right launching fantasy-based and not reality-based critiques of his administration. Or, as he puts it: "The attacks from both the right and the left on the man and his policies aren’t out of bounds. They’re simply—empirically—wrong."
This has triggered the predictable reactions around the blogosphere, as well as Sullivan's responses. One of the biggest perks of blogging at FP is that I rarely wade into those shark-infested waters anymore. I have more than a passing interest in Obama's foreign policy, however, so I'm going to focus only on the foreign policy portions of Sullivan's take and see if they hold up to empirical scrutiny. Here are the key excerpts on his pushback against the right:
On foreign policy, the right-wing critiques have been the most unhinged. Romney accuses the president of apologizing for America, and others all but accuse him of treason and appeasement. Instead, Obama reversed Bush’s policy of ignoring Osama bin Laden, immediately setting a course that eventually led to his capture and death. And when the moment for decision came, the president overruled both his secretary of state and vice president in ordering the riskiest—but most ambitious—plan on the table. He even personally ordered the extra helicopters that saved the mission. It was a triumph, not only in killing America’s primary global enemy, but in getting a massive trove of intelligence to undermine al Qaeda even further. If George Bush had taken out bin Laden, wiped out al Qaeda’s leadership, and gathered a treasure trove of real intelligence by a daring raid, he’d be on Mount Rushmore by now. But where Bush talked tough and acted counterproductively, Obama has simply, quietly, relentlessly decimated our real enemies, while winning the broader propaganda war. Since he took office, al Qaeda’s popularity in the Muslim world has plummeted.
Obama’s foreign policy, like Dwight Eisenhower’s or George H.W. Bush’s, eschews short-term political hits for long-term strategic advantage. It is forged by someone interested in advancing American interests—not asserting an ideology and enforcing it regardless of the consequences by force of arms. By hanging back a little, by “leading from behind” in Libya and elsewhere, Obama has made other countries actively seek America’s help and reappreciate our role. As an antidote to the bad feelings of the Iraq War, it has worked close to perfectly.
OK, so how did Sullivan do?
He has the facts on his side with respect to the BS about Obama apologizing for America. This has been a standard line when the GOP candidates talk foreign policy and it's total horses**t. Sullivan's comparison of Obama to George H.W. Bush and Dwight Eisenhower on foreign policy also makes sense. The emerging strategic narrative of this administration is a shift in foreign policy resources from the Middle East to the Pacific Rim, and realist-friendly presidents like Bush 41 and Eisenhower would approve.
That said... arguing that George W. Bush "ignored" bin Laden seems like a gross exaggeration -- even if many of Bush's anti-terrorism policies were counterproductive. More importantly, the notion that Libya somehow "counteracted" Iraq is a problematic formulation. It's far from clear whether Obama has been "winning the broader propaganda war" in the Middle East. Don't take my word for it, however -- here's PIPA's Steven Kull:
The picture is mixed. With the death of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda is weaker. With revolutions in several Arab countries, frustrations with unpopular autocratic governments - a recruiting theme for terrorist groups - have been mitigated. But one important contributing factor has not improved - widespread anger at America in the Muslim world. While views have improved in Indonesia, throughout the Middle East and South Asia, hostility toward the United States persists unabated.
This does not read like a victory in the propaganda war.
OK, what about Sullivan's foreign policy rebuttal to the left? Here's the key excerpt
This is where the left is truly deluded. By misunderstanding Obama’s strategy and temperament and persistence, by grandstanding on one issue after another, by projecting unrealistic fantasies onto a candidate who never pledged a liberal revolution, they have failed to notice that from the very beginning, Obama was playing a long game.... He has done it with the Israeli government over stopping the settlements on the West Bank—and with the Iranian regime, by not playing into their hands during the Green Revolution, even as they gunned innocents down in the streets.
Hmmm.... I'll be honest, I have no idea what Sullivan is talking about with respect to Israel. Ironically, Israel is one of the areas where the left and right agree that Obama has made a hash of things (albeit for different reasons). First, it's not clear to me at all how Obama's policies have made it more likely that settlement construction will be halted on the West Bank. Second, stepping back further, one could argue that Obama's greatest strategic miscalculation was his belief that the Israel/Palestinian issue was the fulcrum through which one can understand the problems of the region. Third, Israel/Palestine is precisely the area where a long-term, slow-game approach carries the biggest risks. Long-term demographic and political pressures make a two-state deal less likely over time.
Iran is a counterfactual question. Indeed, it's the favorite counterfactual question of the GOP 2012 presidential candidates. It allows the candidates to portray Obama as weak, claim he botched things without any proof that the United States could have influenced the outcome, and promise that they would have handled it differently, which we'll never know in a non-multiverse world. Still, while Obama has succeeded in applying more economic pressure on Iran than is commonly appreciated, I don't see this regime going anywhere.
So, how does Sullivan do? He makes some valid points, but he proffers some serious whoppers as well. This is far from a slam-dunk empirical refutation of Obama's critics. As a George H.W. Bush kind of foreign policy guy, I wanted Sullivan to empirically and logically eviscerate the more hysterical foreign policy critics out there. He didn't.
The genesis of this blog post is a bit arcane. In response to news reports about proposed changes in U.S. defense doctrine, Andrew Exum jokingly suggested "replacing the 'Two Wars' strategy with a 'Who Wants Some? You? How About You, Tough Guy?' strategy" on Twitter. This led to other suggested mottos, expressed in YouTube videos, which eventually led to me issuing a grandiose call: suggest the YouTube clip that "best encapsulates American grand strategy."
Yeah, that should bring you up to speed.
Below you will find the
ten eleven suggested clips that resonated the most for me, with some further elaboration by your humble blogger. WARNING: some profanity. Then again, if the profane is offensive to you, it's best that you not think too hard about American foreign policy.
A penetrating critique of the orrery of errors that have befallen American foreign policy as of late. Clearly, the United States is trying to conduct its international affairs in a sea of darkness, lacking crucial information to light the way. Despite the best efforts to get all the components of American power into alignment, it's hard to pull off.
Steve Saideman linked to this scene from Crocodile Dundee:
The new or not so new defense strategy of having enough of a military to fight one war while deterring or spoiling an adversary's plans requires a "bigger knife" not to use but to dissuade challengers.
Such a grand strategy also plays to the U.S.'s current strength -- dominating conventional war through bigger and better weapons. In the video, Croc Dundee is confronted not by one mugger but several (and one can read race into this if one wants, since the mugger was African-American, and most threats to the U.S. are by non-white folks). His big knife spoils the plans of each of them. Sounds like a good use of resources.
I think it works as an example of soft power and American exceptionalism. Via her affirmations Jessica demonstrates that Americans think America is awesome -- and therefore, why the rest of the world will/should want the same things Americans want.
FP's Michael Cohen proffers this climactic speech from Animal House:
Not bad, actually. Note that Bluto's inspiring speech has no appreciable effect on the apathetic Deltas at first. Only when other elites -- like Otter -- indicate their support, does the rest of the country -- I mean, fraternity -- rally around the flag. A subtle exegesis of how elite consensus can drive the mass public into stupid, futile gestures.
An utterly brilliant exposition of the ways in which the best strategy in the world will be subverted by the cowboy who shoots first and asks questons later. Indeed, this clip works on two levels. On the one hand, you can think of it as the struggles that go on within the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy to make sure everyone is on the same page -- and the ways in which hawkish actors can unilaterally set the agenda. Or, look at it as an exegesis of how the United States, through its willingness to take immediate aggressive action, can exacerbate tensions among its less powerful allies. This exuberance can breed resentment among America's partners, but often, Washington doesn't care, because, well, at least we ain't chicken.
Hmmm ... I'm intrigued. This appears to be a subtle indictment of the idealpolitik that occasionally governs American foreign policy. After all, Ray is trying to "think of the most harmless thing ... something that could never destroy us." Naturally, this leads to the creation of an entity that causes his paranormal colleagues to be "terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought." Think of this as a potential metaphor of both liberal and neoconservative enthusiasm for democracy promotion. Sure, it sounds good in your head, but then you see who winds up doing well in the post-Arab Spring political environment, it's easy to lose the capacity for rational choice.
Ha, I bet you think you've been rickrolled. Think again! Rick Astley smartly presaged one of the central dilemmas of America's post-Cold War foreign policy: how do you get nervous allies to believe that the United States will honor its overseas obligations? You have to
have attractive bleach-blonde back-up singers reassure them that "a full commitment's what I'm thinking of" and that "you'll never get this from any other guy." You have to pledge, repeatedly, that America is "never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down." Furthermore, the United States is "never gonna run around and desert you." This kind of reassurance mechanism, done with the proper tone and in harmony with other voices, can make even the wariest of allies vault over political barriers and do backflips in celebration of their alliances with the United States.
Steven suggests that, at a minimum, this explains public discourse on grand strategy, and he has a point. On the one hand, you have an angry public that appears to be willing to fabricate evidence to justify taking aggressive action. On the other hand, you have elites that reject the absence of any logic to justify action. Instrad, they rely on their own galactically stupid set of axioms to guide their thinking.
Sure, the song is an obvious choice, but as he notes, it was no accident that he chose this version. The joyful version makes light of America's exuberance for all things American. That's not the point of this clip -- it suggests the dark side of American exceptionalism, the burden that the United States faces as it tries to preserve global order in a world gone amok by odd, tacit alliances between terrorists and rogue states.
In less than three seconds, this clip hints at a myriad number of rich textual interpretations. Does the dog represent what happens when force is used, dragging the rest of the country along? Or, perhaps the canine symbolizes the big influence of small allies. Actors that the United States thinks it has under its thumb are actually driving foreign policy more than you would think. Without question, however, critics of the Obama administration would conclude that this clip is the definitive explication of the perils that come with "leading from behind."
Like most of these seemingly short clips, Wueger's submission works on two levels. On the one hand, it demonstrates the ways in which hegemonic power allows some actors to be able to pursue policies that small actors simply cannot. In this comparison, this clip reminds the viewer of the many global public goods that a hegemonic actor might feel obligated to provide. Compare Bus 62 with the U.S. Navy after the 2004 tsunami, for example. On the other hand, hegemonic power can also have unanticipated negative externalities. Sure, Bus 62 simply plows through the barrier. However, it does so without helping the other people stuck in traffic, and, like a boss, nearly plows over the person in the way. A cautionary tale about the uses and possible abuses of power.
OK, readers, what are your suggestions?
Following up on Newt Gingrich and his assessment of threats, I see that the New York Times has a William J. Broad front-pager on Gingrich's obsession with the possibility of adversaries using an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) against the United States:
[I]t is to the risk of an EMP attack that Mr. Gingrich has repeatedly returned. And while the message may play well to hawkish audiences, who might warm to the candidate’s suggestion that the United States engage in pre-emptive military strikes against Iran and North Korea, many nuclear experts dismiss the threat. America’s current missile defense system would thwart such an attack, these experts say, and the nations in question are at the kindergarten stage of developing nuclear arms.
The Missile Defense Agency, an arm of the Pentagon that maintains an arsenal of ground-based interceptors ready to fly into space and smash enemy warheads, says that defeating such an attack would be as straightforward as any other defense of the continental United States.
“It doesn’t matter if the target is Chicago or 100 miles over Nebraska,” said Richard Lehner, an agency spokesman. “For the interceptor, it’s the same thing.” He called the potential damage from a nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack “pretty theoretical.”
Yousaf M. Butt, a nuclear physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who last year did a lengthy analysis of EMP for The Space Review, a weekly online journal, said, “If terrorists want to do something serious, they’ll use a weapon of mass destruction — not mass disruption.” He said, “They don’t want to depend on complicated secondary effects in which the physics is not very clear.”
Mr. Gingrich’s spokesman, R. C. Hammond, did not respond to e-mails asking for comment. But the candidate, a former history professor and House speaker, has defended his characterizations as accurate. At a forum in Des Moines on Saturday for military veterans, Mr. Gingrich said an electromagnetic pulse attack was one of several pressing national security threats the United States faced. “In theory, a relatively small device over Omaha would knock out about half the electricity generated in the United States,” he told the veterans.
I'm neither a security expert nor a rocket scientist. After reading Broad's article, the Space Review annalysis, the rebuttal to that analysis, and Sharon Winberger's excellent FP write-up from last year, however, I'm reasonably confident that the threat posed by EMP is remote for the near-to-medium future. The scenarios in which an EMP would affect the United States rely on a) rogue states making serious leaps forward in their ballistic missile technology and nuclear engineering; and b) those same actors deciding that it's in their national interest to launch a first strike against a country with a reliable second-strike nuclear deterrent.
Nevertheless, I can see why Newt Skywalker would be concerned. Most of the taking-EMP-threat seriously essays harp on the devastating effect of such an attack. Surely, Gingrich would argue, even a small possibility of this actually happening justifies at least some investment into countermeasures and preventive actions. Indeed, Gingrich has explicitly made that argument:
Without adequate preparation, its impact would be so horrifying that we would basically lose our civilization in a matter of seconds.... I think it's very important to get people to understand now, before there is a disaster, how truly grave the threat is.*
Fair enough... let's be generous and say there's a 10% chance of this being a real problem over the next two decades. If that's the case, maybe Gingrich is right to bring it up as an underestimated threat.
Here's my question, however. If we're talking about threats to civilization as we know it, isn't there another possibility that has a much higher probability of occurring -- let's say, better than 50% at least -- and a similarly lax amount of preventive action? Like, say, climate change?
As Uri Friedman and Joshua Keating have documented for FP, however, Gingrich's assessment of that threat has changed recently. Last month, on this issue, he said the following:
I actually don't know whether global warming is occurring.... The earth's temperatures go up and down over geologic times over and over again. As recently as 11,000 years ago the Gulf Stream quit for 600 years. And for 600 years you had an ice age in Europe because there was no warm water coming up. And then it started up again. Nobody knows why it quit, nobody knows why it started up. I'm agnostic.
This is fascinating. On the one hand, you have a long-term cataclysmic threat to the planet that commands the consensus of an overwhelming majority of experts in the field. On the other hand, you have a long-term cataclysmic threat to the United States that commands nowhere close to the same level of consensus. Based on his rhetoric, Gingrich wants urgent action to be taken on the latter, but not the former. Why?
I'm not bringing this up to suggest that Gingrich is a buffoon. He could plausibly argue that a lot of people are harping on climate change while only Gingrich can call attention to the EMP possibility. It's possible that the costs of preventive action on climate change are much greater than dealing with EMP (though if that includes preventive attacks on Iran and North Korea, I'm dubious).
What I'm wondering is whether there is a partisan divide in assessing threats, as there is in assessing economic principles. I wonder if conservatives are far more likely to focus on threats in which there is a clear agent with a malevolent intent, whereas liberals are more likely to focus on threats that lack agency and are more systemic in nature (climate change, pandemics, nuclear accidents, etc.)
What do you think?
*Incidentally, this is the same logic I used to justify greater research into the threat posed by the living dead. Just saying....
I have a long essay in The Spectator (U.K.) on the state of foreign policy thinking among the GOP 2012 presidential candidates. Here's me not pulling my punches:
During the 2008 US presidential election cycle, the respected journal Foreign Affairs invited the leading presidential candidates from both parties to outline their views of world politics. All of them responded with essays that, one presumes, they at least read if did not write. This year, ahead of next year’s elections, Foreign Affairs has proffered the same invitation to the leading Republican aspirants. To date, they have all refused or not responded. This parallels the trend of not talking about international affairs in their endless series of presidential debates: mentions of Afghanistan and Iraq are reported to be down 65 per cent from 2008.
One could argue that these candidates are denying Americans an opportunity to understand their thinking about international relations. Having investigated the policy platforms of the Republican field, however, I have concluded that most of them have done Americans a huge favour. The Grand Old Party candidates’ current thinking on foreign affairs is a noxious mixture of cowardice, belligerence, ignorance — and, unfortunately, political savvy.
Read the whole thing. Two additional thoughts.
1) The Spectator left a few things on the cutting-room floow because of space constraints. For example, the essay fails to mention Jon Hunstman. In my original essay, he did get mentioned in a foootnote after I had slammed the field for the umpteenth time, explaining:
To be fair, former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman has demonstrated a superior command of foreign policy issues. He's also polling so badly that he failed to qualify for CNN's October 18 debate. Tim Pawlenty was another candidate who bothered to address the Council on Foreign Relations on global matters; he withdrew from the race in August of this year.
The other thing that got excised was my point that foreign policy and national security used to be a very important compnent of presidential elections:
[A]s an international relations specialist, I find the state of the state of the GOP foreign policy debate to be utterly depressing, but as a political scientist, I'm unsurprised. Still, as an American citizen, this state of affairs is disconcerting on multiple levels. We are not that far removed from elections in which foreign affairs and national security were the crucial issues in a campaign. Gerald Ford sabotaged his 1976 campaign when he insisted that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Both Michael Dukakis and John Kerry doomed their campaigns by appearing weak and vacillating on national security.
2) I haven't overtly talked about my own personal political beliefs since the blog moved to FP, but this seems to be an appropriate time to bring it up
and then never speak of it again. When I've published essays like this before, I find liberals write "even conservative Dan Drezner..." while conservatives often deploy terms like "academic elitist" or "RINO."
In my case, at this point in time, I believe that last appellation to be entirely fair and accurate. I'm not a Democrat, and I don't think I've become more liberal over time. That said, three things have affected my political loyalties over the past few years. First, I've become more uncertain about various dimensions of GOP ideology over time. It's simply impossible for me to look at the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis and not ponder the myriad ways in which my party has made some categorical errors in judgment. So I'm a bigger fan of the politics of doubt during an era when doubt has been banished in political discourse.
Second, the GOP has undeniably shifted further to the right over the past few years, and while I'm sympathetic to some of these shifts, most of it looks like a mutated version of "cargo cult science" directed at either Ludwig Von Mises or the U.S. Constitution (which, of course, is sacred and inviolate, unless conservatives want to amend it). Sorry, I'm not embracing outdated concepts like the gold standard or repealing the 16th Amendment. Not happening.
Third, David Frum wrote something in New York Magazine that touches on the issues I just discussed, but also articlates something that has been nagging at me for a few years now:
The conservative shift to ever more extreme, ever more fantasy-based ideology has ominous real-world consequences for American society. The American system of government can’t work if the two sides wage all-out war upon each other: House, Senate, president, each has the power to thwart the others. In prior generations, the system evolved norms and habits to prevent this kind of stonewalling. For example: Theoretically, the party that holds the Senate could refuse to confirm any Cabinet nominees of a president of the other party. Yet until recently, this just “wasn’t done.” In fact, quite a lot of things that theoretically could be done just “weren’t done.” Now old inhibitions have given way. Things that weren’t done suddenly are done.
Also, things that weren't said are now being said. Or, to be more precise, things that use to be said but ignored are now being taken seroiusly by the GOP's leading lights. Newt Gingrich endorses the notion that Obama has a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" worldview. Mitt Romney claims Obama has been apologizing around the world and no longer believes in American exceptionalism. Herman Cain is [Remember your mercy rule!!--ed.].... Herman Cain. There's good, solid partisanship -- a vital necessity in this country -- and then there's unadulterated horses**t. Too much of the GOP's rhetoric on Obama reads like the latter to me.
So for those reasons, I really am a Republican in Name Only at this point. And I say this for the GOP's benefit. The next time someone writes, "even the Republican Dan Drezner has said...." GOP partisans should feel perfectly entitled to link to this post and call me a RINO. Because it's true.
Having watched the last national security debate ten days ago, tonight's CNN/Heritage/AEI debate felt at times like a stale rerun. Michelle Bachmann trotted out her same ACLU line, Mitt Romney made the same bleats about the American Century, Ron Paul was … Ron Paul.
Having now watched way too many of these suckers, I'm probably far too
inebriated jaded to evaluate these candidates in the same way that a newcomer to their positions would. They still have to appeal to those newcomers, however, so I can't fault them entirely for repeats.
This is a long-winded way of saying that this debate left me in a very sour mood, primarily because of the following:
1) CNN decided to -- yet again -- waste 15 minutes with various forms of opening introductions. That's 15 minutes that could have been devoted to actual questions.
2) Many of the AEI and Heritage think-tankers asked excellent questions, but why did David Addington and Marc Thiessen get to ask questions while Derek Scissors or Sadanand Dhume didn't? The effect was that, after two hours, not one question was asked about China, North Korea, the rest of the Pacific Rim, India, the eurozone, NATO, Egypt, or Russia. That's just horrible debate management on someone's part.
3) All of the leading candidates said something mind-numbingly stupid. Newt Gingrich claimed that if the United States just unleashed the domestic oil drills, the global price for oil would crash within a year. That's a crock. Mitt Romney suggested trying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for genocide. I'm no fan of Ahmadinejad, but... huh? Ron Paul claimed that Israel had sacrificed its sovereignty to the United States, which is an... interesting interpretation of events. He also claimed that all American foreign aid was worthless, which would be news to the Africans not suffering from malaria or tuberculosis.
So, with those provisos, my quick letter grades:
Newt Gingrich: A- Beyond that energy answer, Gingrich was probably the best of the lot, but that was as much due to style as substance. He gave a lot of "we need to be more strategic than tactical" bromides to start, but to be fair, when pushed he gave cogent answers.
Jon Hunstman: A- Huntsman went hard after Romney on the commander-in-chief question, and for much of the night gave the best answers to myriad questions. That said, he also had some surprisingly weak answers at times, like on the use of drones in Pakistan.
Ron Paul: B+ Consistent as always in his approach, and in some ways he offers the most logically coherent foreign policy of the bunch. As a debater, however, he's second rate. Gingrich schooled him on a question regarding homeland security, for example, when I symathize much more with Paul's position.
Michelle Bachmann: B At this point, Michelle Bachmann is a one-trick pony. On Pakistan -- a particularly tough issue -- she gives thoughtful, nuanced, intelligent responses. Everything else is Crazytown. Pakistan took up a large part of the debate, however, so she did well, takin Perry in paticular to task.
Rick Santorum: B He gave a good answer on foreign aid, and cracked a funny joke about agreeing with Ron Paul. Unfortunately, he also said, "Africa was a country on the brink." Oops.
Mitt Romney: B- Any time you screw up your own introduction, it's going to be a bad night. Romney wasn't horrible by any stretch, but he got pushed by Huntsman on civil-military relations and by Gingrich on immigration. Those guys are no Rick Perry. He did rally with a very thoughtful and considered answer on Syria, however.... in which he schooled Rick Perry.
Rick Perry: D At this point, Perry serves mostly as a foil to make other candidates (Paul, Bachmann, Romney) look smarter. Hard to believe this man was the front-runner, ever.
Herman Cain: F The mercy rule is, thankfully, still in effect.
What did you think?
Walter Russell Mead has not been the biggest fan of the current president, so it's worth quoting at length what he said in a recent blog post about Obama's Pacific Rim trip:
The cascade of statements, deployments, agreements and announcements from the United States and its regional associates in the last week has to be one of the most unpleasant shocks for China’s leadership — ever. The US is moving forces to Australia, Australia is selling uranium to India, Japan is stepping up military actions and coordinating more closely with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, Myanmar is slipping out of China’s column and seeking to reintegrate itself into the region, Indonesia and the Philippines are deepening military ties with the the US: and all that in just one week. If that wasn’t enough, a critical mass of the region’s countries have agreed to work out a new trade group that does not include China, while the US, to applause, has proposed that China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors be settled at a forum like the East Asia Summit — rather than in the bilateral talks with its smaller, weaker neighbors that China prefers.
Rarely has a great power been so provoked and affronted. Rarely have so many red lines been crossed. Rarely has so much face been lost, so fast. It was a surprise diplomatic attack, aimed at reversing a decade of chit chat about American decline and disinterest in Asia, aimed also at nipping the myth of “China’s inexorable rise” in the bud....
[I]t was as decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see. Congratulations should go to President Obama and his national security team. The State Department, the Department of Defense and the White House have clearly been working effectively together on an intensive and complex strategy. They avoided leaks, they coordinated effectively with half a dozen countries, they deployed a range of instruments of power. In the field of foreign policy, this was a coming of age of the Obama administration and it was conceived and executed about as flawlessly as these things ever can be.
You know it was a good foreign policy trip when Politico runs the "Obama will soon miss his foreign policy successes as he returns to the Washington mire" storyline upon his return.
The standard line among the press and expert analysts is that the combination of speeches and actions represents a dramatic foreign policy "pivot" to East Asia. This elides some prior speeches that suggested this was under way for some time, but still -- what does it mean?
I'd suggest three things. First, it's an interesting moment to highlight some macro trends that are relatively favorable to the United States. In comparison to, say, China or Europe, the United States looks to be in decent shape. Over the longer term, trends in both energy and manufacturing suggest that the United States will continue a time-honored tradition and emerge from a crisis of its own making in a stronger relative position than before. If the administration is smart, it will marry its recent successes to these longer-term trends as a way of constructing a more optimistic strategic narrative.
Second, China is likely to pursue a more accommodating posture in the short run. As Mead notes, the official Chinese reaction has been muted. The unofficial reaction has ranged from the hyperbolic to the inscrutable. Still, as I've pointed out repeatedly, China's behavior in 2009 and 2010 was a giant honking invitation for the rest of the Pacific Rim to cozy up to the United States. And that's what should worry Beijing. It's not that the United States is interested in maintaining its presence in East Asia -- that interest has not wavered. What has changed is the eagerness with which the countries in the region, ranging from Australia to Myanmar, have reciprocated.
Third, while the Obama administration deserves credit for this foreign policy swing -- and for some fun, compare and contrast coverage of this trip with Obama's Pac Rim swing from two years ago -- the "pivot" language is badly misplaced. A pivot implies that the United States will stop paying attention to Europe or the Middle East and start paying attention to East Asia. While I'm sure that's what the Obama administration wants to do, it can't. Europe is imploding, as are multiple countries in the Middle East. The United States can't afford to ignore these regions, since uncertainty there eventually translates into both global and domestic problems. A European financial meltdown or an Egyptian political meltdown will have ramifications that simply can't be ignored.
Talking about a United States "pivot" in foreign policy is meaningless. The US, like an overstuffed couch, is simply too big to pivot.
What do you think?
For the record, I don't think Herman Cain is stupid. I do think he's willfully ignorant about anything to do with foreign policy however. If that wasn't manifestly obvious prior to this weekend, please watch the following conversation between Cain and the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal editorial board regarding Libya:
I have a personal preference that ignoramuses should be drummed out of presidential politics as quickly as possible, but that was just painful to watch. Needless to say, I don't think the boning up is helping all that much.
I don't care if this man is leading the polls in Iowa, or is still running a strong second (or a weak third) in the national polls. I suspect he's on the downside of his popularity bubble -- and for the sake of my own sanity, I just can't pay any more attention to Herman Cain's foreign policy views.
There's a mercy rule in Little League, and I'm applying it here -- unless and until Herman Cain surges back in the polls again, or manages to muster something approaching cogency in his foreign policy statements, there's no point in blogging about him anymore. I can only pick on an ignoramus so many times before it feels sadistic.
Apparently the organizers of tomorrow's GOP foreign policy debate asked David Frum to submit ten questions to ask. For the record, no one asked me... sniff.... really I'll be fine... but that doesn't mean I can't offer some of my own. Here would be my top 10 questions:
1) In the last debate, all of you declared that the United States should not help out Italy or other eurozone countries plagued by sovereign debt crises. If these economies received rescue funds from China instead, would that undermine U.S. national security?
2) Many of you on the dias have declared that there should be no daylight between Israel and the United States. Israeli officials have repeatedly and formally requested that Jonathan Pollard's sentence be commuted for spying for Israel. As president, will you accede to this Israeli request?
3) In previous debates, many of you have warned about the dangers of a debased dollar. At the same time, many of you have also complained that China is undervaluing its currency vis-a-vis the dollar to augment its economic growth. Which issue do you believe is more important to America's economic strength?
4) Why should the United States pay any dues to the United Nations? Do you all agree with Governor Perry that the U.S. should reconsider those dues payments?
5) The Doha round of world trade talks has stalled out, and bilateral free-trade agreements have proliferated in recent years. As the president of the world's largest economy, what approach would you favor to promote greater trade liberalization?
6) The United States recently dispatched 100 military advisors to Uganda in an attempt to subdue the Lord's Resistance Army. What criteria would you use, as president, to decide when to use American force for the purpose of humanitarian intervention?
7) Many of you have complained about illegal immigration flows during the campaign, but the hard data suggests that these flows have slowed dramatically over the past few years. What is the appropriate amount of effort to devote to this issue?
8) What steps would you take, as president, to ensure that elements of the Pakistani government cease supporting violent non-state actors in Afghanistan and India?
9) Many of you have criticized the Obama administration for ignoring military advice on troop decisions in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the pre-war debate with respect to Iraq, however, the Bush administration rejected troop estimates from Army Chief of Staff (and now Secretary for Veterans Affairs) Eric Shinseki. When would you be prepared to overrule the advice you receive from the military?
10) Who, in your opinion, was the greatest foreign policy president in American history besides Ronald Reagan, and why?
Commenters are heartily encouraged to offer their foreign policy questions in the comments.
The Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper reads through the fine print of a G-20 pool report:
President Obama] entered the room at 1:15 and took to his left, heading to Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. They chatted for a few seconds before British Prime minister David Cameron joined them. Hard to understand what they were saying amid the cameras noise. POTUS then took a stroll to Australian Premier Julia Gillard who got a hug as European president Herman van Rompuy, European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso and Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan were watching. Eventually the Europeans got a handshake but Erdogan got the hug treatment....
Isn't this whole scene pretty standard for President Obama? The Europeans get a handshake and the Islamist Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gets a hug (emphasis by Halper).
-- Halper's colleague at the Weekly Standard -- goes further, tweeting this anecdote as an example of Obama "hugging enemies, abandoning allies."
Yeah, I can't believe that Obama is hugging the personification of an America enemy like, like... a NATO treaty ally's head of government. The same country that helped to bankroll the Libya anti-Gadhafi movement and is now creating an enclave for the Free Syrian Army.
Yes, Erdogan has clearly made life difficult for another ally -- Israel. On the other hand, lots of America's allies make life difficult for other American allies (see: Gibraltar). That doesn't mean Turkey automatically gets its ally label revoked. If you look at the larger balance sheet of American interests, Turkey under Erdogan has been neither an enemy like Iran nor a frenemy like Pakistan. It's been occasonally aggravating, but really, when it comes to the global political economy, western European leaders like Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have been way more aggravatiing.
So, yes, Michael Goldfarb has clearly gone Vizzini on the word "enemy."
To take a step back here, however, Goldfarb's language raises an some interesting observations. first, there's an awful lot of "friend/enemy" distinctions being made among GOP foreign policy commentators. That's the one takeaway from Herman Cain's foreign policy statements to date. The distinction sometimes useful -- from an American perspective, India is a friend but not an ally, while Pakistan is the reverse. Still, by and large, friends and allies do overlap a lot. Does this kind if language indicate a new GOP embrace of Carl Schmitt's worldview?
Second, to be blunt about it, is Israel now America's ally uber alles? If other countries disagree with Israel, does that mean, in Goldfarb's eyes, that they no longer qualify as either friend or ally? Are there any other of America's friends that fall into this super-special status? I really want to know.
Yesterday at NRO, the always-interesting
Reihan Salam Josh Barro* offered a robust defense of inside-the Beltway thinking about economic policy -- which he labels the "Washington Consensus" (NOTE: not exactly the same thing as this Washington Consensus):
While it contains a lot of errors, the Washington Consensus is right more often than it is wrong. Even more importantly, critiques of the Washington Consensus are wrong more of then than they are right—meaning that taking Washington Establishment down a peg will tend to do more harm than good....
Since the Washington Consensus contains lots of errors, there are outsiders with better ideas in these areas. Nominal GDP targeting, championed by Scott Sumner and others, would constitute a major improvement of monetary policy. Higher capital requirements and a tax on financial institutions that benefit from government backstops, among other reforms, would reduce systemic risk in the banking sector.
But the question is, would empowering outsiders at the expense of the establishment tend to replace the Washington Establishment’s biggest policy errors with outside wisdom? Or would it more often gut sound-but-unpopular policy and replace existing errors with bigger errors?
There are numerous policy areas where the hegemony of the Washington Establishment is the only thing saving America from popular but terrible ideas—trade, immigration, foreign aid.
I tend to agree with Reihan, particularly with his TARP example. What I'm wondering is whether this holds true with foreign affairs as well. Let's face it, the foreign policy community (myself included) supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Clearly, we have made Very Big Mistakes. Foreign policy wonks outside the mainstream are very fond of claiming that being outside the mainstream is evidence that they're right. There are also many areas where the foreign policy consensus seems unsatisfying at best or catastrophic at worst.
That said, it'a far from clear to me that populist foreign policy responses would necessarily be all that much better. One could argue that, in toto, the American public is pretty damn realist -- but I doubt that a populist foreign policy would actually resemble realpolitik. The problem gets back to Salam's point -- even if there is mass discontent with the foreign policy establishment, there is not necessarily a lot of consensus about what should be in its stead. Some critics would likely prefer a radical retrenchment of American military power -- combined with a similar retrenchment in economic openness. Others would prefer a greater embrace of multilateral structures -- regardless of whether they actually worked or not.
My hunch is that more bad would occur than good -- but I want to hear from readers on this. Is there such a thing as foreign policy "common sense"? And, if so, would we see it implemented if the foreign policy community was winked out of existence?
*Yes, Barro is always interesing as well
My FP colleague Steve Walt has responded to my Obama-praising blog post with a long litany of Obama foreign policy failures. He includes climate change, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, the global economy, North Korea,
failing to cure cancer.... you get the drift.
Walt closes with the following observation:
Where Dan and I agree, however, is the crucial role of domestic politics. For if you look at the failures listed above, what is striking is that most of them are heavily shaped by domestic constraints. Doing something serious about climate change would have real consequences for business and consumers, and that wasn't going to happen when we are teetering on the brink of another recession. Making progress on Israel-Palestine or on Iran would require bringing in a new Middle East team and taking on the Israel lobby (including the Christianist wing of the GOP), and Obama abandoned that course after the Cairo speech in June 2009. His decisions to escalate in Afghanistan and to try to stay in Iraq were clearly shaped by domestic political concerns, and especially the perennial Democratic fear of being perceived as "weak" on national security. Trade liberalization is always a contentious issue here at home, and especially tough to tackle with a weak economy.
In short, Dan's broader point about Obama's foreign policy successes is insightful: the president has done well in those relatively minor areas where domestic politics do not loom large and where he can exercise unilateral authority. But on the more important and more difficult issues where you would have to convince the American people to follow a new path, he's come up mostly empty.
First, in some cases, what Walt would consider a "success" might not be what others consider a success. On Iran, for example, Walt laments that "the administration [has not] managed to think outside the box and try a different approach." Beyond the Leveretts, however (and Ron Paul), I'm not sure anyone else would agree with Steve in that assessment. Furthermore, to be fair, I think there's some pretty strong evidence that the administration did think outside the box in handling the nuclear issue.
Second, part of the issue here is how one defines a "success" in foreign policy. For example, Walt says the following on Libya as to why it's a failure:
[D]idn't the "Mission Accomplished" moment in 2003 in Iraq teach us about the dangers of declaring victory prematurely? We can all hope that the Libyan revolution fulfills its idealistic hopes and avoids the various pitfalls that lie ahead, but it is way too early to start bragging about it, or declaring it the model for future interventions. And if Libya does go south, enthusiasm for the "Obama Doctrine" will fade faster than watercolors in the Libyan sun.
Walt's observation is eminently sensible -- there are many ways in which Libya could evolve in a direction unfriendly to American interests. This gets to a deeper issue, which is how one defines "success" in politics vs. political science. Afghanistan looked like a success in 2001; Iraq looked like a success in 2003. Obviously, over time, these situations changed. As political scientists, we need to keep tabs on these developments.
In politics, however, voters tend not to do all that much updating, particularly in terms of foreign policy. It takes high-profile events for new information to filter down to
candidates who read one whole page of foreign news almost every day the American public. It will be interesting to see how Libya (and Egypt, and Tunisia, and Syria, etc.) play out over the next few decades. My post was about the next year, however -- and Obama will be able to claim credit if it looks like things are going well, and fall back on "we didn't play that big of a role" if things fall apart. From a policy perspective, that's a very cynical way of looking at things -- but it makes sense from a political perspective.
Third, in many of the cases that Walt cites as failures, the problem isn't necessarily the domestic politics of the United States but the domestic politics of other countries. On climate change, Israel, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq, it's impossible to discuss the outcomes without recognizing the domestic political constraints/chaos in these countries. While each of them possesses elements willing to cooperate with the United States, there are spoilers aplenty in all of these countries. This is a problem that Bush faced when he was in office, Obama has faced now, and will be a bigger problem over time. It's a sign that the degree of difficulty in conducting American foreign policy has gone up.
This brings me to my final cavil. I'd really like the Steve Walt of this blog post to reconcile his arguments with... the Steve Walt who just published "The End of the American Era" in The National Interest. See, that Steve Walt views American decline as both inevitable and structural, which implies that these outcomes aren't a function of Obama's leadership per se but impersonal forces of history. Many of the cases Walt cites as Obama "failures" in his blog post are treated as ineluctable outcomes of relative American decline in his TNI essay. Which is it?
I'd leave it at that, except that this story clearly represents the Cain campaign's efforts to push back on the notion that he doesn't know enough about foreign affairs. And so we get... the following:
Almost every day, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is handed a one-page briefing from his chief foreign policy adviser on news from around the world.
It’s one of several things his campaign says the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, who has never held elective office before, is now doing to bone up on foreign policy — especially as he faces a big test in November at a GOP debate on national security issues.
“He’s really getting up to speed a lot more so than people give him credit for,” J.D. Gordon, Cain’s foreign policy and national security adviser who prepares the briefings, said in an interview with The Daily Caller on Monday....
Gordon says Cain has been receiving counsel from people well known in the foreign policy community. While Gordon won’t say who Cain talks with, Cain has admitted he admires people like former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton.
Other steps Cain has taken to educate himself about foreign policy, Gordon said, include his visit to Israel in August “to learn the facts on the ground.”
“He met with the deputy prime minister and the mayor of Jerusalem,” Gordon said (emphasis added).
It's the "almost" that kills me.
Look, I get that Cain is going to put the United back in the United States of America, and the economy is really, really super-important. So are the decisions to expend blood and treasure around the world, however. This kind of spin on Cain's foreign policy interest -- and, bear in mind, spin is the comparative advantage of Cain's chief foreign policy advisor -- is just f***ing absurd.
With Muammar Gaddafi's timely demise, it's becoming harder and harder to argue that Barack Obama's foreign policy is a failure. Of course, this hasn't stopped the GOP's 2012 candidates for president from trying. They dislike Obama so much that they're even saying nice things about France instead.
The GOP field's reluctance to acknowledge any of Obama's foreign policy successes is driving some people a little batty. Here's Kevin Drum:
I understand the left's problem with Obama's national security policy. But the right? What the hell is their problem? Obama has escalated our presence dramatically in Afghanistan; he created a massive drone air force that's all but wiped out al-Qaeda in Pakistan; he killed Osama bin Laden; he approved a multilateral military operation in Libya that ended up killing Muammar Qaddafi; he sent a SEAL team out to kill Somali pirates; he assassinates U.S. citizens in foreign countries who are associated with al-Qaeda; and he's done more to isolate and sanction Iran than George Bush ever did. Crikey. Just how bloodthirsty do they want the guy to be?
Andrew Sullivan offers a similar lament.
Five thoughts. First, it's worth noting that some Republican leaders have been reasonably forthright in giving Obama some hosannahs. John McCain said, " I think the administration deserves great credit." Lindsey Graham went further, excoriating fellow Republicans for sheer bloody-mindedness in opposing Obama's Libya policy. Mitt Romney, the GOP candidate who seems to have thought the most about foreign policy, said "yes, yes, absolutely" Obama deserved some credit for the end of Gaddafi's regime. So, there's that.
Second, through a combination of obstinance and incoherence, the GOP field's criticisms are looking pretty foolish. Simply denying any credit to the Obama administration's foreign policy has become sillier over time. In some cases a singular candidate's criticism remains logically consistent, but contradicts what other candidates say. So, you have candidates like Ron Paul and Jon Hunstman want to see the U.S. retrench (in the case of Paul, quite radically), while Mitt Romney wants a 600-ship navy while Michelle Bachmann wants to see the reestoration of autocracy in Egypt while Herman Cain just wanders from foreign policy misstatement to foreign policy misstatement. Instead of actual criticisms, the field has resorted to
horseshit myths like the famed-but-nonexistent Obama "Apology Tour."
Politico's Josh Gerstein points out that Gaddafi's downfall exposes some of the policy contradictions within the GOP field.
The fact that some in the GOP criticized Obama for leading from behind while others said he is too quick to send U.S. troops abroad suggests a growing lack of foreign policy consensus within the Republican Party, one Democratic foreign policy analyst said.
“The Republican Party right now has attacked both its ‘neo-con’ elite and its ‘traditional-con’ elite,” said Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network. “They sort of don’t know what they think. They don’t listen to their own people…they just don’t have a coherent worldview.”
Third, I suspect that it doesn't matter all that much, and the GOP presidential candidates know it. Herman Cain has managed to vault to co-frontrunner status despite truly astounding levels of ignorance of foreign policy. There's a reason for that -- GOP voters don't care about foreign policy and the president is increasingly unpopular despite his foreign policy prowess.
Fourth, the president's foreign policy approach hasn't been perfect. He's botched the tactics of the Israel/Palestine peace process, hasn't earned all that much from his "reset" with Russia, is pretty damn unpopular in the Middle East, and was slow to realize that his own personal popularity abroad wouldn't translate into concrete policy accomplishments in, say, the G-20 or the U.N. Security Council. Admittedly, the GOP candidates will simplify this into "Israel!! ISRAEL!! ISRAEL!!!!" but Obama is hardly immune to criticism.
Finally, the one thing I wonder is whether the president will be able to use his foreign policy prowess on the campaign trail. I could see Obama articulating some variant of the following in 2012:
As president, I have to address both domestic policy and foreign policy. Because of the way that the commander-in-chief role has evolved, I have far fewer political constraints on foreign policy action than domestic policy action. So let's think about this for a second. On the foreign stage, America's standing has returned from its post-Iraq low. Al Qaeda is now a shell of its former self. Liberalizing forces are making uneven but forward progress in North Africa. Muammar Gaddafi's regime is no longer, without one American casualty. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down. Every country in the Pacific Rim without a Communist Party running things is trying to hug us closer.
Imagine what I could accomplish in domestic policy without the kind of obstructionism and filibustering that we're seeing in Congress -- which happens to be even more unpopular than I am, by the way. I'm not talking about the GOP abjectly surrendering, mind you, just doing routine things like sublecting my nominees to a floor vote in the Senate. I've achieved significant foreign policy successes while still cooperating with our allies in NATO and Northeast Asia. Just imagine what I could get done if the Republicans were as willing to compromise as, say, France.
So I see I'm not the only one perturbed by Herman Cain's decision not to take foreign policy seriously.
Politico's Ben Smith concurs, but closes out his blog post on Herman Cain's foreign policy gaps with a provocative point:
There's... something almost quaint, '50s-ish about his invocation of "experts," as though there were a professional expert class that wasn't deeply divided by party and ideology. Even in foreign policy, last redoubt of the wise men, that isn't really true any more.
Except, perhaps Cain isn't really wrong. For all the Washington bomb-throwing, President Obama's foreign policy has been characterized by continuity with President Bush's, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Africa, not with any sharp break. The foreign policy elites don't get along, but with the occasional dramatic exception -- the Iraq invasion was that -- they generally wind up giving similar advice. President Cain will probably be O.K.
This is fascinating question -- does it really matter if Cain continues to dodge any and all foreign policy questions? I've noted that specific foreign policy pledges don't matter all that much -- what about generic foreign policy knowledge?
I think it does matter, for a few reasons. First, the continuity between Bush and Obama overlooks the fact that Bush's foreign policy circa 2008 looked very different from his 2002 foreign policy. It was Bush's post-2001 first-term deviation that truly stands out. Eventually, these deviations from the norm return because they are unsustainable. During the interim, however, an awful lot of blood and treasure can be wasted. I'd like a chance to know Cain's general thinking on foreign policy topics if he seriously wants the commander-in-chief job. If he also deviates from the general contours of American foreign policy, it's the rest of America that will suffer.
Second, Cain's philosophy of "I won't say anything until I know all the facts" is bogus because, in foreign policy, the facts are never all in. Very often intelligence is partial, biased, or simply flat-out wrong. It's those moments, when a president has to be a foreign policy decider for a 51-49 decision, that a combination of background knowledge and genuine interest in the topic might be useful.
Side note: if Cain really believes that he can't talk about foreign policy without getting all the information, then why does he feel at liberty to declare the Obama administration's foreign policy to be "dumb"? Either he keeps his mouth shut about the topic or he starts articulating some positions -- he can't criticize Obama without saying what he'd do instead.
Third, without some knowledge about foreign policy, the best intelligence briefings and foreign policy advisors in the world won't be able to help Herman Cain. An awful lot of international relations knowledge is cumulative; without a decent base there's no point in trying to be briefed on the arcane stuff. That would be like trying to learn calculus without knowing any algebra. I really don't expect Herman Cain to know the names of foreign policy leaders -- but I do expect him to know which countries matter and why. In his answer to "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan," Cain made it pretty clear that he doesn't understand why Uzbekistan matters for supplying Afghanistan. That's a problem.
Fourth, there are decisions when the particular president does matter. A President Gore doesn't invade Iraq. Apparently a President McCain would not have sent special forces into Africa. In this post-9/11 world, the president has greater authority to assassinate people than I'd like, but there it is -- so which people will be on Cain's target list? So I'd like to see the "Cain Doctrine" fleshed out just a wee bit.
Finally, and not to put too fine a point on it, America's reputation for competent leadership has taken a colossal beating over the past decade. With Iraq in 2003, Katrina in 2005, the 2008 financial crisis, and the 2011 debt ceiling fiasco, America doesn't look so hot in the eyes of the world. We have a smaller margin to screw up royally than we are used to. I suspect that even Herman Cain would learn about foreign policy after a few years on the job. It's those few years that scare the crap out of me.
The Cain campaign has said that they plan to "roll out a detailed foreign policy plan sometime within the next month," so they obviously recognize that there's a problem with their current lack of positions. I look forward to perusing their plans.
It took me a couple of hours of reading, cogitation, and regurgitation to critique Mitt Romney's foreign policy positions. Clearly, I didn't think it was perfect, or even all that good in many places. But, I had to assess it, mull over the content... you know, think.
Now, I desperately want to be an equal opportunity blogger, and at this point Herman Cain appears to be the co-frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination. Sure, I've had my fun with him in the past, and he has no shortage of foreign policy gaffes, but I figured that impromptu utterances during debates are only one part of a candidate's overall policy vision. The thoughts that are written down, they imply some forethought. So I thought I'd go over to Cain's campaign website and spend an equal amount of time to analyze his foreign policy thinking.
I found.... a total of five paragraphs on "national security." That's it. No white papers, fact sheets, bullet points, or list of advisors. So you gotta think that these are going to be the most awesome and mind-blowing foreign policy paragraphs ever!!!
Let's jump right in:
The primary duty of the President of the United States is to protect our people. In fact, it is the principal duty of a limited federal government. They must ensure that our military and all of our security agencies are strong and capable.
I'm with you so far, Mr. Cain -- my only objection is your odd pronoun choice of "they."
Unfortunately, national security has become far too politicized with our elected officials using the issue as a means to polarize our country as the “war hawks” and the “peace doves.” In response, the safety and morale of our brave men and women in uniform are often at risk for political gain. The judgment of our military experts on the ground is often underutilized in exchange for political purposes. National security isn’t about politics. It’s about defending America.
Let me just stop you right here and ask a few questions. First, which elected officials are politicizing national security -- could you be a bit more specific? Second, just out of curiosity, is President Obama a "war hawk" or a peace dove"? I mean, he's pretty hard to categorize at this point, right -- maybe a "peace hawk" or a "war dove"? So if the commander-in-chief doesn't fit your typology, is it at all useful? Also, when you accuse others of politicizing national security issues, aren't you, well, playing politics with national security?
While diplomacy is a critical tool in solving the complex security issues we face, it must never compromise military might. Because we are such a free and prosperous people, we are the envy of the world. Many regimes seek to destroy us because they are threatened by our ideals, and they resent our prosperity. We must acknowledge the real and present danger that terrorist nations and organizations pose to our country’s future.
On this "many regimes seek to destroy us" business -- can you give me more than one example? I'm not talking about a lot of countries, all you need to provide is a few.
Further, we must stand by our friends and we must not be fooled by our enemies. We should never be deceived by terrorists. They only have one objective, namely, to kill all of us. We must always remain vigilant in dealing with adversaries.
Now my head is starting to spin. What if an enemy pretends to be a friend just to fool us -- you know, like Lindsey Lohan in Mean Girls? What do we do then? How do we know you won't be fooled? Also, if you think terrorists only have one goal, how could they ever deceive us?
We must support our military with the best training, equipment, technology and infrastructure necessary to keep them in a position to win. We must also provide our men and women in uniform, our veterans and their families with the benefits they deserve for their tremendous sacrifice. These heroes have served us. We must never forget to serve them.
This "pro-winning" national security policy is quite daring and provocative.
So, that's it. Nothing on great power politics, nothing on foreign economic policy, nothing on our alliances, nothing on any particular region of the globe. Nothing but a faint whiff of Carl Schmitt's logic of friends and enemies. This is actually worse than Rick Perry's efforts, in that I don't think it passes the Turing Test.
Cain is busy promoting his new book, This Is Herman Cain!, so I checked it out to see if there was anything more illuminating on foreign policy. And, indeed, there were two revealing facts. On page 131, he states:
I can tell you what the Cain Doctrine would be: if you mess with Israel, you're messing with the United States of America. Is that clear?
Actually, that is clear. Unfortunately, we get to the problem on p. 133:
It's difficult to say how the Cain Doctrine would apply to the Middle East's other countries, especially those affected by the "Arab Spring," and to nations elsewhere in the world.
OK, that's totally unclear. Could you provide any more guidance to your thinking?
I'm not trying to escape the broader issues, but I think a President should first be briefed on classified intelligence about America's relationships before offering opinions.
The public doesn't know the answers to those [foreign policy] questions, and neither do I.
Three thoughts. First, you're totally trying to escape the broader issues. Second, if one accepted this logic at face value, then a president could never articulate anything useful on foreign policy in public, since the rest of us ain't going to be briefed on these matters anytime soon.
Third, I am 100% in agreement with Mr. Cain: he hasn't the faintest clue what to do when it comes to American foreign policy.
Am I missing anything? Seriously, is there anything Cain has written that displays anything resembling an understanding of how foreign policy works?
As I noted previously, compared to his GOP rivals, Mitt Romney has some actual foreign policy thinking going on. On the other hand, as Dan Trombly points out, doing better than Herman Cain or Rick Perry is a really low bar. So, looked at objectively, what's my assessment of Romney's foreign policy white paper?
I could go through it line by line, but James Joyner already did that for The Atlantic. As it turns out, I'm reaching a course called The Art and Science of Statecraft that will require students to write a grand strategy document. Sooo.... if Mitt Romney was one of my students, how would I grade him? See below:
You and your study team have clearly put a lot of work into "An American Century." It's cogently written and organized. Your basic statement of purpose -- "advance an international system that is congenial to the institutions of open markets, representative government, and respect for human rights (p. 7)" -- fits perfectly within the mainstream of American foreign policy thinking. You've done an excellent job of demonstrating an awareness of the complexity of threats that face the United States in the 21st century. I liked it on p. 6 when you noted that:
In the highly dynamic realm of national security and foreign policy there are seldom easy answers. Discrete circumstances in disparate regions of the world demand different kinds of approaches. There is no silver bullet for the problem of securing the United States and protecting our interests around the world.
You've also demonstrated an appropriate awareness that American power rests on more than a strong military. When you note that a Romney administration would "apply the full spectrum of hard and soft power to influence events before they erupt into conflict (p. 8)," I caught myself nodding along.
Some of the details are intriguing as well. I need to look more into these "Reagan economic zones" that you mention a lot, but applying them to Latin America and the Pacific Rim make a great deal of strategic and economic sense. I'm not fully persuaded that your notion of creating regional envoys to organize all "soft power resources" is all that different from the foreign policy czars or special envoys of administrations past, but this kind of argument fits well with your management background.
That said, there are some logical flaws and major gaps in this draft that will have to be corrected if you want to earn a better grade. The first problem is the style. I recognize that you've written this as a campaign document, so you're never going to completely eliminate the
unadulterated horsheshit allegations about the current president going on an apology tour. Maybe you could do it a bit more subtly in the future, however?
Secondly, there's a lack of historical awareness in some parts of the document. For example, on page 7 the paper says:
[A] Romney foreign policy will proceed with clarity and resolve. The United States will clearly enunciate its interests and values. Our friends and allies will not have doubts about where we stand and what we will do to safeguard our interests and theirs; neither will our rivals, competitors, and adversaries.
Now, reading this, I kept thinking back to the Bush administration and its repeated assetions that that there would be no hypocrisy in foreign affairs. Much like Bush, reality turned out to be trickier. I suspect you know this, from the other excerpts noted earlier. So get rid of this fluff: I'm sure statements like this play well in a management consulting boardroom, but it's not going to cut it in the real world.
Similarly, for someone who says that, the Obama administration is "undermining one’s allies (p. 3)" in contrast to you, who will "reassure our allies (p. 13)", you don't actually talk about America's treaty allies much at all. True, you do talk about expanding America's alliance system to include India and Indonesia. Mexico gets some face time. Israel gets a lot of face time. On the other hand, NATO is not mentioned once in this entire document. Neither is the European Union. Japan and South Korea get perfunctory treamtment at best. Turkey is a major treaty ally but you treat it like a pariah state. For someone who's claiming that the U.S. will reassure its major allies, you didn't seem to give them much attention at all. This is a really important problem, because Japan and Europe have been crucial allies in a lot of major American initiatives -- and they're getting weaker. Even in discussing new possible allies, I'm kind of gobsmacked that Brazil is never mentioned.
Another big problem is that your approach to China is so shot full of contradictions that I don't know where to begin. Do you seriously believe what you wrote on p. 3:
The easiest way... to become embroiled in a clash with China over Taiwan, or because of China’s ambitions in the South or East China Seas, will be to leave Beijing in doubt about the depth of our commitment to longstanding allies in the region.
Really? See, I'd say the easiest way to get embroiled in a clash with China is to write Taiwan a blank check on their defense needs. The second easiest would be to publicly bluster on about Taiwan to a Chinese leadership that feels increasingly insecure and will be tempted to stoke the fires of Chinese nationalism by creating another Quemoy and Matsu crisis.
Furthermore, you talk explicitly about supplying Taiwan with "adequate aircraft and other military platforms (p. 18)" in supposed contrast to the Obama administration. You also talk about strengthening relationships with other countries that neighbor China in an effort to preserve American dominance. Now, this might be a bit provocative, but I get the rationale. Here's the thing, though -- you can't simultaneously do this and assert that you will "work to persuade China to commit to North Korea’s disarmament (p. 29)." Really? How exactly are you gonna persuade them on this point? Do you really think that arming Taiwan to the teeth and blasting its human rights record will do the trick?
If the section on China is contradictory, then your discussion of Pakistan is worse. You state on p. 31-32:
It is in the interests of all three nations to see that Afghanistan and the Afghanistan/ Pakistan border region are rid of the Taliban and other insurgent groups.... Pakistan should understand that any connection between insurgent forces and Pakistan’s security and intelligence forces must be severed. The United States enjoys significant leverage over both of these nations. We should not be shy about using it.
There are at least two assertions in the quoted section that are highly dubious -- I'll let you find them on your own.
One final point, should you choose to revise this draft strategy -- you need to prioritize the threats you discuss in the paper. You list a whole bunch of them -- rising authoritarian states, transnational violence, failing states, and rogue states. If you have to prioritize, which threats merit greater attention? This should actually be pretty easy, since you absurdly overhype the threats posed by some of these countries (Venezuela, Cuba and Russia in particular).
I look forward to reviewing your later work.
Mitt Romney has spent the last day rolling out his approach to international relations. First his list of foreign policy advisors, then his backgrounders to important foreign policy reporters, then his speech at The Citadel, and finally his team's 43-page white paper.
There are two ways to think about Mitt Romney's foreign policy pronouncements. The first way is to understand the following joke:
Two campers are in the woods. In the morning, as they exit their tent, they see a bear rumbling into their campsite. One of the campers immediately starts putting on his shoes. The other camper turns to him and says, "Are you crazy? Even with your shoes, there's no way you can outrun that bear."
The first camper stands up with his shoes now on and says, "I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you."
Compared to the other viable GOP candidates to date, Romney is the guy with his shoes on. Sure, he runs awkwardly, and I have little doubt that America's foreign policy challenges will quickly overwhelm him. Compared to Herman Cain or Rick Perry, however, he's a friggin' Olympic sprinter. Romney has had to think about foreign affairs for a while now, and while I might disagree with some of his musings, they're at least.... actual musings.
As for the other way... well... I'll get to hat one after I've
atoned for my sins digested Romney's white paper sometime this weekend.
Yesterday FP alum Laura Rozen detailed the State Department's push to have economic statecraft to the front and center of U.S. diplomacy:
[I]n many ways, Hillary Clinton's diplomatic portfolio is increasingly indistinguishable from many of the leading challenges in global economic policy. Trade issues obviously have a direct impact on America's efforts to emerge from the present economic downturn--from the battles over the national debt to the the need to stimulate job growth. But economic issues also shape other less-noted features of the American foreign-policy agenda, be it the effort to contain fallout from Europe's debt crisis, to the rise of major economic powers such as China, Brazil, Turkey and India—all of whom come bearing their own foreign policy ambitions....
So Hillary Clinton has been working hard to beef up the economic bench strength of the State Department, while also mounting a bid for State officials to play a more decisive role in determining U.S. global economics policy. Aides expect her to lay out what they are calling the "Clinton doctrine on economic statecraft" early this month, likely in a speech in New York. Timing and venue for the address are still being worked out, her aides say.
"This is coming from a sense that we are seeing the lines between national security and economic security blur as emerging powers are doing more to advance their economic power, and fitting their national security strategy is more about economic interest," the State Department adviser told the Envoy Friday....
"As we pursue recovery and growth, we are making economics a priority of our foreign policy," Clinton said at the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Shangri La conference in Hong Kong in July. "Because increasingly, economic progress depends on strong diplomatic ties and diplomatic progress depends on strong economic ties. And so the United States is working to harness all aspects of our relationships with other countries to support our mutual growth."
Full disclosure: State Department officials have reached out to your humble blogger
in a sign of true desperation to talk about ways in which economics should be integrated into American foreign policy. Don't panic -- I know that they're talking to smarter people than I as well.
Economic statecraft is only as useful as the economic power that fuels such statecraft -- namely, the attraction of possessing a large, dynamic, growing economy for imports, deep capital markets, provisions for foreign assistance, and a model of economic development that looks attractive to others. Now, getting Congress to vote on negotiated-long-ago trade deals is certainly a step in the right direction. Talking about Russian entry into the WTO is also constructive.
On the other hand.... I fear that the State Department is fighting through hurricane-level winds on this front to make a difference. First, the trade deals just sent to Congress are the last ones we're going to see for a while. Doha is dead, the Trans-Pacific Partnership still hasn't materialized, and all of the momentum on trade policy is to move towards
futile gestures closure. The dynamic, growing economy is not looking so dynamic, and those deep capital markets are getting extremely jittery.
Finally, there's foreign aid -- which brings us to this New York Times front-pager by Steven Lee Myers:
America’s budget crisis at home is forcing the first significant cuts in overseas aid in nearly two decades, a retrenchment that officials and advocates say reflects the country’s diminishing ability to influence the world....
The financial crunch threatens to undermine a foreign policy described as “smart power” by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, one that emphasizes diplomacy and development as a complement to American military power. It also would begin to reverse the increase in foreign aid that President George W. Bush supported after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as part of an effort to combat the roots of extremism and anti-American sentiment, especially in the most troubled countries.
Given the relatively small foreign aid budget — it accounts for 1 percent of federal spending over all — the effect of the cuts could be disproportional. (emphasis added)
It's striking to see Myers be that blunt in his assessment of the effects of these budget cuts. Look, foreign aid is far from a panacea, but one has to think of these forms of economic statecraft as spending on preventing rather than curing ailments in American foreign policy. As a general rule, the former is far cheaper than the latter. The latter also tends to involve a much greater allocation of blood and treasure. I know why foreign aid is the first item on the chopping block -- unlike military spending, it doesn't go to Congressional districts -- but let me go on record as saying this is a stupid own-goal by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Even if one buys the need for fiscal austerity, there's a lot more waste in the Pentagon than the State Department.
So American economic power looks set to wane, and the Amerian model of political economy seems broken. On the one hand, this is not a strong foundation upon which to build a more effective economic statecraft. On the other hand, this is precisely the moment during which policymakers need to think about how to be more efficient with America's still-impressive reservoirs of economic strength.
Consider the comments below as a suggestion box -- what would you recommend the State Department do to improve upon American economic diplomacy?
Over at The Atlantic, Max Fisher argues that the age of American client states is coming to an end:
The fall of easily controlled dictators across the region (the U.S. has already given up on its man in Yemen) comes at the same time as U.S.-allied democracies and autocracies alike seem increasingly willing to buck Washington's wishes. Last week alone, the U.S. clashed with some of its most important client states. Maybe that's because of America's habit of picking the most troubled states in the most troubled regions as clients (where they're perceived as the most needed), maybe it's because democratic movements are pressuring client states to follow popular domestic will rather than foreign guidance, and maybe it's because the idea of clientalism was doomed from the start....
Whatever the reasons, U.S. client states have been causing Washington more headaches than normal this year, and particularly over the past week. Here are ten of the most closely held U.S. clients, measured in part by foreign assistance (scheduled for fiscal year 2012) and by number of U.S. troops stationed there (according to Department of Defense statistics). Each is labeled with the reason for their strategic importance and with a rough gauge of how much trouble it's been causing the U.S., rated on a scale from "Zero Problems" to "Migraines in Washington." The most extreme cases are labeled "Client Relationship at Risk." Looking over the list of troubled client relationships, it's easy to wonder if the entire Cold War-inspired enterprise could be nearing its end. Maybe Egypt, just as it helped end the centuries of European imperialism in 1956, could make 2011 the year that began the end of clientalism.
Fisher makes an interesting point, but if you look at his list, there's a pretty obvious pattern: the client states causing actual headaches in Washington are in the Greater Middle East. Fisher's examples from Latin America and the Pacific Rim -- Colombia, South Korea and Taiwan -- are relationships that are actually deepening rather than fraying. These also happen to be the most democratic countries on Fisher's list.
The deeper question is whether the trouble with clients is a uniquely American problem, a uniquely Middle East problem, or a more general phenomenon of client-patron relationships. This is really the bailiwick of Dan Nexon, and I expect he'll weigh in on this question soon. Based on China's difficulties with North Korea and the Middle East, I'm inclined to think it's a general phenomenon, however.
As the economy has been weakening, the odds of the GOP producing the president of the United States in 2013 has been increasing, which means I've been watching the debates, including last night's CNN Tea Party debate.
Last night's debate followed the same pattern as the other ones I've seen -- the ratio of domestic policy to foreign policy questions was about 80:20 -- maybe 70:30 if one considers immigration to be a foreign-policy question. International political economy is barely addressed at all, except in glancing references to China's ownership of U.S. debt. My Twitter feed has been overflowing with laments like this one during all of the debates.
Now, as a Foreign Policy Wonk in Good Standing, you might imagine that I'm pretty upset about this. International relations is half the job of being POTUS, after all, so one would expect half the debate time to be devoted to it. Goodness knows, the performance of some of the GOP candidates has given me serious pause about their ability to execute even a semi-competent foreign policy.
In truth, however, I can't get all that worked up about it, for two reasons. The first is that these debates are an attempt to influence voters -- and, to repeat a theme, the overwhelming majority of voters do not care about foreign affairs. This has been true as a general rule, even during wartime, and is even truer during a down economy. It should be noted that social policy questions have also been on the margins during these debates because this election is about the economy, the economy, and the economy. Foreign-policy wonks will begrudge the lack of globotalk -- that's what we do. I'm not going to begrudge the American people getting more time to hear candidates talk about issues that they think are the most important, however.
The second reason -- and this is more informed speculation than a statement of fact -- is that foreign-policy promises made during campaigns don't matter as much for governing as domestic policy promises. As Ron Paul reminded people last night, George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 on a platform of "no authority in the Constitution to be the policeman of the world, and no nation-building." I think it's safe to say that's not how he ran his foreign policy.
Similarly, think back to Barack Obama's foreign-policy pledges during the 2008 primary season. He had two highlights. The first was a statement that he'd be happy to sit down without conditions and meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That hasn't happened despite Ahmadinejad's repeated entreaties for an open debate. Obama's other highlight came when he and Hillary Clinton sparred over who would renegotiate NAFTA first. Again … that hasn't happened (and thank goodness for that).
I could go on -- Bill Clinton reversed his campaign pledge to let in Haitian refugees before he even took office. You get the point, however. Stepping back, it's hard to think of any significant foreign-policy campaign promises made in the modern era that actually mattered. I hereby challenge the commenters -- and BA and MA students desperately in search of a thesis -- to provide counterexamples.
To be clear, I'm not saying that foreign-policy issues are completely irrelevant. The contrast between Obama and Hillary Clinton on Iraq clearly affected the 2008 primary, for example. I'm hypothesizing that pronouncements about future foreign policy don't seem to matter. I suspect that this is for two reasons. First, as previously noted, voters don't care about these pledges all that much. Second, the world keeps changing, and so any new president needs to adapt to new circumstances.
In contrast, domestic policy promises made during campaigns do matter. Signal statements -- Obama on health care, Bush 43 on tax cuts -- mattered in the execution of policy. The most famous counterexample -- Bush 41 going back on his no-new-tax pledge -- proves the rule, as it cost him dearly. So what candidates say during these portions of the debates matters more.
Just to be clear, these are hypotheses and not conclusions. A cursory scan of the literature didn't turn up anything, but I'm betting someone has studied this question. I'm not sure I'm right here, and I'd welcome pushback or confirmation in the comments.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger is badly behind on many day-job activities. As a result, I'm afraid that I can't comment in detail on Mitt Romney's foreign policy VFW speech. There was stuff in there that resonated with me and stuff that had me shaking my head.
My key takeaway, however, is that there was actual stuff in the speech. The contrast with Rick Perry's VFW speech is pretty striking. Looking at the two of them back-to-back, one can see a similar set of applause lines. The difference is that Romney's speech contains actual, specitic critiques of Obama's foreign policies. These critiques can be debated, but at least there's content to debate about in this speech.
In contrast, as previously noted, Perry's speech lacked anything remotely resembling content.
Perry is a late entry to the 2012 nomination, so maybe this is just a case of being new to the campaign trail. Maybe foreign policy is not a subject that Perry likes to focus on. I honestly don't know, and I'll be looking for more content as the campaign intensifies.
Am I missing anything?
So I see Rick Perry gave a quasi-foreign policy speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars 112th National Convention. Here's the gist of the foreign policy section:
James Lindsay analyzes the content over at CFR, concluding that, "There is something in it for every significant foreign policy constituency in the GOP," although "any mainstream Republican or Democratic presidential candidate could have given Perry’s speech." This is likely because, "while Perry’s speech was heavy on foreign policy bromides it was short on specifics."
Lindsay is being kind -- this speech is ninety-eight percent concentrated pablum (contra Lindsay, the "multilateral debating society" crack does signal it being a GOP speech). Seriously, I hereby challenge my friends at Shadow Government who might be Perry-friendly to find something of interest in this speech. It's the foreign policy equivalent of this scene from The Distinguished Gentleman:
Now, to be fair to Perry, this San Antonio News-Express news story suggests that he had some constraints on what kind of speech he could deliver. So, really, I'm not sure that anything of consequence can be divined from this.... er.... assemblage of cliches that maybe, just maybe, passes the Turing Test.
Still, what Perry said is such pure, unadulterated boilerplate that, as a foreign policy commentator, one must step back and gape in wonder. Reading it, the absence of anything interesting kept nagging me as hauntingly familiar.
And then I realized -- Rick Perry had just delivered the Wolf Blitzer of foreign policy speeches!! It's familiar, yet utterly devoid of interesting content!!
And for that, Rick Perry is the distinguished inaugural nominee of the Wolf Blitzer Award for Foreign Policy Boilerplate.
Fareed Zakaria thinks that the Libya intervention signals "a new era in U.S. foreign policy":
The United States decided that it was only going to intervene in Libya if it could establish several conditions:
1) A local group that was willing to fight and die for change; in other words, "indigenous capacity".
2) Locally recognized legitimacy in the form of the Arab League's request for intervention.
3) International legitimacy in the form of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.
4) Genuine burden sharing with the British and French spelling out precisely how many sorties they would be willing to man and precisely what level of commitment they would be willing to provide.…
The new model does two things:
First, it ensures that there's genuinely a local alliance committed to the same goals as the external coalition. This way, there is more legitimacy on the ground. And if there is anything Afghanistan and Iraq have taught us, it is that local legitimacy is key.
Second, this model ensures that there is genuine burden sharing so that the United States is not left owning the country as has happened so often in the past.…
In the future, we will again have to follow this limited model of intervention.
This sounds great, except that the set of criteria that Zakaria lists is so stringent that I seriously doubt that they will be satisfied again in my lifetime. Russia and China regretted the U.N. support the minute after it passed, and the president of the Arab League had buyer's remorse almost immediately after NATO started bombing. Even if the Libya operation looks like a success from here on out, there's no way that list of criteria will be satisfied. Ever.
Now, for those readers worried about the creeping militarization of American foreign policy, this might sound like a great idea, as it creates a ridiculously high barrier for military intervention. And, indeed, so long as these criteria are only used to satisfy humanitarian military interventions, it sounds good. Except that most military interventions aren't strictly humanitarian. The moment core national interests kick in, these criteria get downgraded from prerequisites to luxuries.
So Zakaria is wildly inflating the importance of the sui generis nature of the Libya intervention. But that's OK; he's a pundit, not an actual policymaker. There's no way anyone working in the White House, say, would make such a simplistic, facile -- hey, what's in this Josh Rogin FP interview with Ben Rhodes?
This week's toppling of the Qaddafi regime in Libya shows that the Obama administration's multilateral and light-footprint approach to regime change is more effective than the troop-heavy occupation-style approach used by the George W. Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan, a top White House official told today in a wide-ranging interview.
"The fact that it is Libyans marching into Tripoli not only provides a basis of legitimacy for this but also will provide contrast to situations when the foreign government is the occupier," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for communications, in an exclusive interview on Wednesday with . "While there will be huge challenges ahead, one of the positive aspects here is that the Libyans are the ones who are undertaking the regime change and the ones leading the transition."…
"There are two principles that the president stressed at the outset [of the Libya intervention] that have borne out in our approach. The first is that we believe that it's far more legitimate and effective for regime change to be pursued by an indigenous political movement than by the United States or foreign powers," said Rhodes. "Secondly, we put an emphasis on burden sharing, so that the U.S. wasn't bearing the brunt of the burden and so that you had not just international support for the effort, but also meaningful international contributions."
Rhodes said that the United States is not going to be able to replicate the exact same approach to intervention in other countries, but identified the two core principles of relying on indigenous forces and burden sharing as "characteristics of how the president approaches foreign policy and military intervention."
Excuse me for a second; I have to go do this.
Look, ceteris paribus, burden-sharing and local support are obviously nifty things to have. I guarantee you, however, that the time will come when an urgent foreign-policy priority will require some kind of military statecraft, and these criteria will not be met. The Obama administration should know this, since its greatest success in military statecraft to date did not satisfy either of these criteria.
There is always a danger, after a perceived policy success, to declare it as a template for all future policies in that arena. Pundits make this mistake all the time. Policymakers should know better.
So the big Middle East news this AM is that the Obama administration has explicitly called for Syrian leader Bashir Assad to leave power. The White House blog has the full text of Obama's statement. On Assad:
The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people. We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.
The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria. It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders, and we have heard their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement. What the United States will support is an effort to bring about a Syria that is democratic, just, and inclusive for all Syrians. We will support this outcome by pressuring President Assad to get out of the way of this transition, and standing up for the universal rights of the Syrian people along with others in the international community.
As to what the administraion is going to do to, well, you can check out the executive order, or you can believe me when I say that it amounts to a tightening of economic sanctions.
Now, conservatives have been calling for this move for quite some time, while Middle East analysts like FP's Marc Lynch, have been far more pessimistic. Two months ago, Lynch argued:
[T]here's "Expellus Assadum": the magic words by which Obama might declare that Asad must go and somehow make it so. While there's every reason for the U.S. to ratchet up its rhetorical criticism of an increasingly violent and brutal regime, tougher rhetoric isn't going to change the game. The entire course of the Arab upheavals this year demonstrates the limits of American influence and control over events or other regional actors. It most certainly proves that firm Presidential rhetoric is not enough to tip either the internal or the international diplomatic balance.
Libya should be enough to demonstrate this hard reality. I'm actually optimistic about Libya -- the diplomatic and military trends all clearly favor the rebels, the NTC has come together into an impressive government-in-waiting, and international consensus has remained reasonably strong. But even if Libya ends well, the reality is that it has taken months under nearly the best possible conditions. It isn't just that the President used his magic words. The Libya operation had widespread regional and international support, UN authorization, direct military involvement in a favorable environment for airpower, and an organized and effective opposition on the ground with a viable political leadership. And it has ground on for months.
The idea that invoking "Expellus Assadum" would quickly lead to an endgame in Syria just doesn't make sense. Demanding that Obama say "Assad must go" seems less about Assad and more about either moral posturing or about creating a rhetorical lever for pressuring Washington -- not Damascus -- to do more to deliver on that new commitment. By putting the President's -- and America's -- credibility on the line, however, it might force unwanted escalation into more concrete actions in order to deliver on the demand. So tougher and sharper rhetoric, with constant condemnations of violence, is not just appropriate but essential... but escalating to "Assad must go" at this point is not.
I've already revealed my sober assessment of this kind of policy step on Twitter. That said, I'm a bit more sanguine about this kind of call than Lynch. This strikes me as your classic gut-level foreign policy pronouncement, which, as I argued last month, accomplishes nothing of substance but, "just the acknowledgment of frustration can be politically useful, a venting of pressure that might otherwise lead to hopelessly misguided or absurdly risky policy options."
I suspect Marc is still haunted by the ways in which this sort of rhetoric about Saddam Hussein in the 1990s laid the political groundwork for Operation Iraqi Freedom. But it's not the 1990's anymore. The United States has three active military operations in the Middle East. There is no public clamor or enthusiasm for yet another military engagement, nor do I see any genuine policy appetite for such a move. Sanctions are already in place. Covert action might be taking place, but that policy option can never be publicly acknowledged. As the New York Times story notes, in calling for Assad to leave the United States is now moving towards the consensus in the region.
When the rest of the policy quiver has been exhausted, sure, why not call for Assad to leave? As a general rule, all else equal, I see no reason why the U.S. government should not express its actual preferences rather than hide behind diplomatese. Or, as Douglas Adams would put it, this rhetorical move counts as "harmless."
What do you think?
whored mingled enough with the magazine world to understand that publishing "best/worst" lists are fun and engaging. Some choices will be universally acknowledged, others will provoke controversy and debate, and so forth. Lists are always going to engage the readers. It's almost impossible to get them wrong.
I bring this up because The Atlantic's list of the best and worst foreign policy presidents of the past century is really, really wrong.
Democracy Arsenal's Michael Cohen cobbled together the list. Here are his criteria:
After reaching out to host of historians, foreign policy experts, academics and various think tankers here's one stab at answering a question which, in many respects, has no right answer. How you choose the best and worst foreign policy President depends in large measure on what values inform your vision of what a good foreign policy looks like. If you're a foreign policy idealist, Wilson would seem pretty good; a foreign policy realist; you might cast a vote for George H.W Bush or even Richard Nixon. If you prefer your presidents to talk tough, Harry Truman might be your man; if you prefer a more modest and less partisan figure, Dwight Eisenhower might float your boat.
As my list suggests, I tend to lean toward the more restrained, pragmatic realists who are suspicious about the use of force. Conversely, I'm more wary of not only the idealistic and ideologically driven presidents, but also those who use foreign policy, most destructively, as a tool of domestic politics.
OK, fair enough. Here's his list:
The Five Best Presidents: 1) FDR; 2) Dwight Eisenhower; 3) George H.W. Bush; 4) Ronald Reagan; 5) John F. Kennedy
The Five Worst Presidents: 1) LBJ; 2) Jimmy Carter; 3) Woodrow Wilson; 4) Harry Truman; 5) Richard Nixon.
I'll let Tom Ricks rebut the JFK assessment on his own blog. I'll let my readers make other objections -- and there are many ones to make -- with most of he list. My problem is with the assessment of Harry Truman as, somehow, one of the five worst foreign policy presidents of the last century.
Here's Cohen's explanation -- let's do this by paragraph, shall we?
Harry Truman has in the nearly 50 years since he left the White House grown significantly in the estimation of both the public and many historians. To be sure, he deserves enormous credit for protecting and stabilizing Western Europe with the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO. These are signal achievements but as historians from Robert Dallek and Walter Lafeber to Fredrik Logevall have suggested there is a pretty significant downside to Truman's presidency as well.
One must stop here or a second and admire Cohen's ability to glom most of Truman's foreign policy accomplishments into a single sentence. That takes some doing. One could have at least noted that in the span of five years Truman and his foreign policy advisors created pragmatic institutions that not only withstood the Cold War but prospered even after it ended. Nope, nothing on that point. That takes some serious doing.
OK, let's move onto Truman's alleged defects:
First there was Korea. An impulsive response to a cross-border attack that re-shaped American foreign policy. It was the final nail in the coffin of the more modest containment strategy proposed by George Kennan and by default enshrined the notion that the US had a responsibility to contain Communism wherever it showed its fangs. But while the decision to go to war can be considered a debatable one; the failure in rein in Douglas MacArthur's push to the Yalu River, which triggered a Chinese intervention is a disaster that can't be washed away (even by Truman's later decision to fire the general). Considering that more than 20 million North Koreans continue to live in terrible hardship today because of that decision only compounds the mistake (emphasis added).
Why yes, that's so true. Had Truman not decided to respond in force in Korea, there wouldn't be 20 million North Koreans living in terrible hardship -- there would be at least 60 million Koreans living in terrible hardship.
Seriously, this line of reasoning makes no sense to me. I understand but strongly disagree with the logic that intervening in Korea was a mistake. I understand and kinda agree with the contention that crossing the 38th parallel was exceedingly costly in terms of blood and treasure. I simply can't understand, however, the argument that had the U.S. not made that push, North Korea would have evolved differently. Would Kim-Il Sung have abandoned juche if MacArthur hadn't tried for the Yalu?
Speaking of MacArthur, you can't acknowledge Truman's failure to rein him in without also acknowledging that by firing MacArthur, Truman cemented civilian control over the military just as the size of the U.S. military was reaching a new high.
Beyond Korea, the Truman Doctrine and its declaration that it was the "policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures" laid the groundwork for the limitless definition of US national interests that unfolded over the next 60 years. As Kennan would later note, it was one thing to contain Communism in Europe (a goal on which Truman succeeded). It was quite another to broaden that goal to the rest of the world. There is, as a result, a straight line between Truman's foreign policy choices and the war in Vietnam.
Right, this is why Eisenhower felt compelled to intervene in Vietnam during Dien Bien Phu -- oh, wait, as Cohen points out in his Eisenhower write-up, he did the exact opposite of that. I don't buy straight-line arguments that take two decades to play out.
Then there was Truman's use of anti-Communist rhetoric for political advantage that turned what might have been a balance of power, geo-political clash into an ideological one. This, of course, also helped to politicize the Cold War in the United States and heightened the issue of anti-Communism. Indeed, few Presidents more flagrantly used foreign policy as a political punching bag as frequently as Truman.
I'd be more charitable towards this point if Cohen hadn't also said that Eisenhower "used Cold War fears to push for national highway system and more money for higher education, two smart national security investments." When is using foreign policy fears at home good and when is it bad, exactly? Based on Cohen's list, I can't tell.
Finally, ask yourself a counter-factual: how would the Cold War have unfolded if FDR had lived out his fourth term, rather than having the inexperienced Truman become the leader of the Free World? It's not hard to imagine that the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, so deftly handled by FDR during WWII, would have been minimized and a less militarist and dangerous conflict might have emerged. At the very least, as Robert Dallek points out even if superpower, ideological conflict between the US and Soviet Union was inevitable, Truman never really sought to find an alternative (emphasis added).
Again, I'm not sure what to make of this. First, Cohen acknowledged that FDR "sold out the Eastern Europe countries at Yalta." Does he believe that FDR would have somehow been able to repulse Stalin in Iran, Greece, Turkey and elsewhere without a Cold War -- or do those countries not matter?
Second, if the bipolar distribution of power made superpower conflict inevitable, why exactly should Truman be blamed for not dickering around with alternatives that would have crashed and burned? According to this logic, Truman is one of the five worst foreign policy presidents of the last century because he failed to pursue unfeasible options. I'm sorry, but clearly I don't get it.
In his blog post explaining the list, Cohen acknowledges that:
I'm probably far too generous to John F. Kennedy, who makes the best list, and far too harsh to Richard Nixon, who makes the worst list. This is a pretty fair critique and if I had my druthers I'd put both men somewhere in the middle, but the need for editorial symmetry was too strong!
Fair enough -- but I'm sorry, listing Harry Truman as one of the five-worst foreign policy presidents is absurd.
Am, I missing anything?
Despite Fareed Zakaria's best efforts, it seems that foreign policy commentators can't stop offering advice on American grand strategy.
Richard Haass provides the latest salvo in Time. After arguing that no other great power can offer a serious revisionist challenge to the current system, concluding, "Today's great powers are not all that great." With that set-up, he proposes a grand strategy of "Restoration":
The U.S. would continue to carry out an active foreign policy—to create international arrangements to manage the challenges inherent in globalization, to invigorate alliances and partnerships, to deal with the threats posed by an aggressive North Korea, a nuclear-armed Iran and a failing Pakistan.
But under a doctrine of restoration, there would be fewer wars of choice—armed interventions when either the interests at stake are less than vital or when there are alternative policies that appear viable. Recent wars of choice include Vietnam, the second Iraq war and the current Libyan intervention. There would, however, continue to be wars of necessity, which involve vital interests when no alternatives to using military force exist. Modern wars of necessity include the first Iraq war and Afghanistan after 9/11....
Restoration is not just about acting more discriminating abroad; it is even more about doing the right things at home. The principal focus would be on restoring the fiscal foundations of American power. The current situation is unsustainable, leaving the U.S. vulnerable either to market forces that could impose higher interest rates and draconian spending cuts or to the pressures of one or more central banks motivated by economic or conceivably political concerns.
Reducing discretionary domestic spending would constitute one piece of any fiscal plan. But cuts need to be smart: domestic spending is desirable when it is an investment in the U.S.'s human and physical future and competitiveness. This includes targeted spending on public education, including at the community-college and university levels; modernizing transportation and energy infrastructures; and increasing energy efficiency while decreasing dependence on Middle East oil. Spending cuts should focus on entitlements and defense. Further deficit reductions can be achieved by reducing so-called tax expenditures such as health care plans and mortgage deductions. The goal should be to reduce the deficit by some $300 billion per year until the budget is balanced but for interest payments on the debt.
Adopting a doctrine of restoration for several years would help the U.S. shore up the economic foundations of its power.
[Hasss' argument is] derivative of what journalist Peter Beinart called a “solvency doctrine” back in 2009. He wrote, “No matter what grand visions Obama may harbor to remake the world, the central mission of his foreign policy--at least at first--will be to get it out of the red.” None of these plans or explanations is perfect, of course, but taken together, they seem to me good starting points for what a grand strategy for the U.S. should look like, namely a focus on tending to the sources of American power rather than on making more commitments that draw on it.
Color me skeptical. It's not that I don't like the ideas behind Haass' argument -- they're sympatico with a welter of realpolitik-friendly strategies that have been promulgated at regular intervals.
There are two currently insurmountable political problems with Haass' strategy, however. The first is that it is ridiculously hard for the U.S. government to draw down military commitments -- particularly if the U.S. military doesn't want to do it. It's worth remembering that Barack Obama entered office with a worldview that closely matched Haass' restoration idea -- and yet, in the end, he expanded U.S. operations in Afghanistan and attacked Libya to boot. The U.S. military strongly supported the former, while Obama's foreign policy advisors jump-started the latter. [So, you're saying that if a powerful executive-branch foreign-policy actor favors the use of military statecraft, it's gonna happen?--ed. Um... yeah, I guess I am.]
The second is that a restoration strategy is really a focus on domestic policy. And, as I noted in the pages of Foreign Affairs:
The most significant challenge to Obama's grand strategy is likely to emerge at home rather than abroad. Viable grand strategies need to rest on a wellspring of domestic support. The biggest problem with Obama's new grand strategy is its troublesome domestic politics....
By focusing on renewing the United States' domestic strength, the Obama administration has introduced more partisan politics into the equation. There is still some truth to the aphorism that politics stops at the water's edge. But if the administration argues that the key to U.S. foreign policy is the domestic economy, then it increases the likelihood of domestic discord. Based on the tenor of the debates about the rising levels of U.S. debt, the possibility that the president can hammer out a grand bargain over fiscal and tax policies is looking increasingly remote.
I wrote that a few months ago, and of course as the debtopocalypse approaches, I'm sure things will improve in our domestic political discour--- HA HA HA HA HA HA HA... I'm sorry, I couldn't finish that sentence, I was
crying bitter tears laughing too hard.
Restoration won't be happening anytime during this session of Congress... or perhaps ever. The real problem in today's political climate is devising a grand strategy that is sustainable both domestically and internationally. I'm reluctantly coming around to Peter Trubowitz and Charles Kupchan's conclusion that the bipartisan political foundations for a viable grand strategy are badly eroded.
Hmm... let me think about this for a second....
It's hard to deny Boot's assertion that, over the past century, U.S. military power has been a necessary and successful tool to advance American national interests. That said, however, if we look only at last decade, the picture darkens considerably. After Afghanistan and Iraq, is it really possible to claim that the U.S. armed forces have been our most effective instrument of power projection? Have we purchased more than $1 trillion worth of increased security since 9/11? No, I don't think that we have.
My opinion doesn't count all that much, but former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates's opinion should. While in office, he wasn't shy in observing that the U.S. military was playing too outsized a role in the crafting of foreign policy.
Furthermore, let's take a look at this graph, courtesy of the Heritage Foundation:
The striking thing about this chart is that we're spending more on the military now than we did during the peak of Cold War tensions and Reagan's military build-up in the mid-1980's -- especially since military spending by the rest of the world has fallen dramatically since the end of the Cold War.
Just to repeat a point I made last fall:
AEI's latest "Defending Defense" paper doesn't do it either. Despite numerous claims about the hollowing out of the U.S. military, I didn't see a single instance in the report in which American military capabilities were compared to either extant threats or possible security rivals.
Neoconservatives are going to have to present more reasoned arguments for why defense spending should not be on the chopping block than the scare tactics of Boot -- or, for that matter, this whopper from Robert Kagan:
Spit-take!! Look, I'm just as scared of the AARP's political muscle as the next foreign policy wonk, but to claim that there is no domestic interest group support for more defense spending is just as bad as, oh, I don't know.... writing a whole book pretending to discover that there's an interest group lobby that supports Israel without defining it properly.
This critique of Kagan's assertion is pretty overwrought, but the core point ain't wrong.
Question to readers -- what is the best logical, empirically grounded argument you can make for not cutting the defense budget?
UPDATE: For more on this point see Christopher Preble, as well as Shadow Government's Kori Schake. Schake makes a trenchant point -- if there are to be serious cuts, defense experts need to start thinking seriously about the best way to do it, rather than simply lopping a certain percentage off the top.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.