So I see that Jackson Diehl's Washington Post column attracted a lot of eyeballs yesterday. He argued that Obama thinks that the same things that were important 25 years ago are important now. Diehl closes with the following:
[T]his administration is notable for its lack of grand strategy - or strategists. Its top foreign-policy makers are a former senator, a Washington lawyer and a former Senate staffer. There is no Henry Kissinger, no Zbigniew Brzezinski, no Condoleezza Rice; no foreign policy scholar.
Instead there is Obama, who likes to believe that he knows as much or more about policy than any of his aides - and who has been conspicuous in driving the strategies on nuclear disarmament and Israeli settlements. "I personally came of age during the Reagan presidency," Obama wrote in "The Audacity of Hope." Yes, and it shows.
1) If one takes Diehl's list of grand strategists as given, I'd have to conclude that presidents do much better without one. If you reflect on the Nixon, Carter and Bush 43 administrations, only one of them had a grand strategy that looks even semi-respectable at the present moment. Maybe grand strategists don't lead to great foreign policy (then again, I'm not sure I'd take Diehl's list as given -- Condi Rice is many things, but no one thought of her as a grand strategist. Even if she was, I don't think the Buswh administration's foreign policy followed this blueprint at all. And, let's face it, the word "strategist" is already in mortal danger of being demeaned into nothingness).
2) Having edited a book on the subject, I've become more and more dubious of those who complain about grand strategy in foreign policy. Bemoaning the lack of a grand strategy is the first refuge of the foreign policy critic. Often, it's not that the president in question lacks a strategic vision, it's that the president has a grand strategy that the critic doesn't like. If the last decade has taught us anything, it's that it is possible to have a coherent, well-articulated grand strategy that is nevertheless completely counterproductive in advancing the national interest.
3) Even though it's possible to nitpick Diehl's op-ed to death, there's a grain of truth buried in those last few paragraphs. No one disputes that Obama has a White House-centric foreign policymaking process, but I'm not sure Obama's White House staff merits that allocation of power. The recent shifts in foreign policy personnel have narrowed the foreign policy circle even more than before. And there are real mismatches between the Obama administration's grand strategy and its current foreign policy priorities.
4) Ordinarily, none of this would matter. So long as really stupid policies are avoided, I don't think that grand strategies matter for most countries most of the time -- what matters are good fundamentals like a robust economy. The thing is, this is one of those rare moments when strategy does matter. Any time you have a systemic shock -- like a great power war or a massive global recession -- you get massive uncertainty about the future direction of world politics. Add on the fact that there's now a potential challenger to the most powerful state in the world, and there are a lot of key actors in the world wondering what's going to happen next.
These are moments when a well-articulated and executed gramd strategy can reassure allies and signal possible rivals about a country's future course of action. And I'm unconvinced that the Obama administration's existing strategy documents provide any kind of clear signal at all.
What do you think?
I was remiss in not blogging about Tom Donilon replacing James Jones as National Security Advisor. Well, actually, I don't think I was remiss, because I didn't think it was all that big of a deal. Past reportage indicated that Donilon had been the de facto national security advisor for some time now.
The one difference is that Donilon has had the ear of Obama in a way that Jones never did. And sure, access to the president is an important lever of influence in Washington. It's no guarantee of success, however. Condoleezza Rice probably had a closer relationship to President Bush than Steve Hadley, but the latter did a better job as NSC advisor. Like Peter Feaver, I figured that this move simply matched titles to actual responsibilities.
The personnel change, however, is causing some people to say some silly things. Steve Clemons, for example, provides this assessment:
Obama's decision making system -- which is huge now and an obvious corrective to the cabal-like operation that Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Richard Cheney ran during the G.W. Bush years -- simply could not function without Donilon (and [Denis] McDonough).
But that does not mean that the role of being the premier adviser to the president on America's global threats and challenges can be properly filled by someone who is excellent at a speedy, inclusive, decision making process but too overwhelmed to get distance to think and advise strategically.
Some of the early reactions to the Donilon appointment have focused on his political connections and savvy over his intellectual merits and standing. These critics couldn't be more wrong.
While Donilon has not taken the path to power that many others in the national security establishment have of carefully pruned and crafted exposes on American foreign policy -- published in journals of record like Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, National Interest, and American Interest -- he has been actively engaged for years in national security strategy groups and working meetings.
His thinking about U.S. foreign policy is known to any who have worked with him in these groups. He's a systematic, creative, pragmatic thinker about America's foreign policy challenges -- and whether he has expressed himself in roundtable discussions rather than a large volume of opeds makes no difference.
Donilon is a pragmatic, non-ideological practitioner who knows that America's greatest challenge today is restoring its stock of power and its ability to positively shape the global system. He knows that American power is doubted today and needs to be reinvented -- and he thinks about this all of the time. It is what animates him and the furious pace he keeps.
This might be the ritual suck-up-to-the-next-NSC-advisor kind of blog post, but taken at face value, a few minor corrections are warranted.
First, by definition, a good foreign policy process should be able to function well regardless of personnel changes. If a process can't function without particular individuals in charge, then it's neither a good nor a robust decision-making process.
Second, "non-ideological" policymakers don't exist. Policymakers might be in denial about what ideologies they possess. Their ideologies might be so moderate and mainstream that they're not noticed as ideologies. But any policymaker has a set of ideas that guides them through the complex swamp that is world politics.
Finally, from what I can read, there was no policy distance between Jones and Donilon. The only difference seems to be that Donilon was more willing to push back against the military, and that the military dislikes Donilon more. Why this promotion should lead to fundamental policy changes is beyond me.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
My post yesterday on
following Vizzini's advice U.S. retrenchment from Central Asia generated a bit of pushback. I should point out that my concern here is that the U.S. husbands its power resources with a bit more acumen. Sure, Central Asia has some strategic significance, but the thing is, every region in the globe has some strategic significance. If I'm rank-ordering U.S. strategic priorities, it would go as follows: 1) East Asia; 2) Latin America; 3) Europe; 4) Middle East; 5) South Asia; 6) Central Asia; 7) Africa (there's also a big gap between 4 and 5 on this list). Scarce resources devoted to Central Asia have to be siphoned from somewhere, and I don't want too much of a diversion from other strategic priorities.
That said, I want to clarify that I'm not saying that the U.S. is in terminal decline and therefore should engage in a systematic strategic retreat. David Bell makes an excellent point in The New Republic today -- there has been a perpetual declinism industry in the United States since the launch of Sputnik.
Twenty-two years ago, in a refreshingly clear-sighted article for Foreign Affairs, Harvard's Samuel P. Huntington noted that the theme of "America's decline" had in fact been a constant in American culture and politics since at least the late 1950s. It had come, he wrote, in several distinct waves: in reaction to the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik; to the Vietnam War; to the oil shock of 1973; to Soviet aggression in the late 1970s; and to the general unease that accompanied the end of the Cold War. Since Huntington wrote, we can add at least two more waves: in reaction to 9/11, and to the current "Great Recession."....
What the long history of American "declinism" -- as opposed to America's actual possible decline -- suggests is that these anxieties have an existence of their own that is quite distinct from the actual geopolitical position of our country; that they arise as much from something deeply rooted in the collective psyche of our chattering classes as from sober political and economic analyses.
For whatever reason, it is clear that for more than half a century, many of America's leading commentators have had a powerful impulse consistently to see the United States as a weak, "bred out" basket case that will fall to stronger rivals as inevitably as Rome fell to the barbarians, or France to Henry V at Agincourt.
On the foreign policy front, selective U.S. retrenchment doesn't imply terminal decline so much as a temporary realignment to ensure that American power and interest are matched up going forward.
Question to readers: does retrenchment presage resurgence?
Yesterday, Arthur Brooks (head of AEI), Edwin Feulner (head of Heritage) and William Kristol (official badass of the neoconservative movement) launched their "Defending Defense" initiative with a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
As FP's Josh Rogin has observed, this effort is aimed at the libertartian wing of the conservative movement just as much as the Obama administration. It also comes on the heels of Danielle Pletka and Tom Donnelly's Washington Post op-ed that explicitly took on the small-government right.
The core of Brooks, Feulner and Kristol's justification for more robust defense spending:
It is unrealistic to imagine a return to long-term prosperity if we face instability around the globe because of a hollowed-out U.S. military lacking the size and strength to defend American interests around the world.
Global prosperity requires commerce and trade, and this requires peace. But the peace does not keep itself. The Global Trends 2025 report, which reflects the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community, anticipates the rise of new powers -- some hostile -- and projects a demand for continued American military power. Meanwhile we face many nonstate threats such as terrorism, and piracy in sea lanes around the world. Strength, not weakness, brings the true peace dividend in a global economy.
We have not done enough to help our military preserve the peace and deter (and if necessary, defeat) our enemies. Americans have fought superbly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have prevented any further terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11. But faced with a nuclear Iran, or a Chinese People's Liberation Army that can deny access to U.S. ships or aircraft in the Asian-Pacific region, there are many missions ahead.
Yet we face those challenges with a baseline defense budget—defense spending minus the cost of the wars—that is 3.6% of GDP, significantly less than the Reagan-era peak of 6.2%. Our active-duty military is two-thirds its size in the 1980s.
Really? That's the best this trio could come up with in the way of security threats? Meh.
Terrorism and piracy are certainly security concerns -- but they don't compare to the Cold War. A nuclear Iran is a major regional headache, but it's not the Cold War. A generation from now, maybe China poses as serious a threat as the Cold War Soviet Union. Maybe. That's a generation away, however.
There's a reason for that Reagan-era peak in defense spending that Brooks, Fuelner and Kristol elided: the Cold War tensions of the early 1980's.
I'm about to say something that might be controversial for people under the age of 25, but here goes. You know the threats posed to the United States by a rising China, a nuclear Iran, terrorists and piracy? You could put all of them together and they don't equal the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And until I see another hostile country in the world that poses a military threat in Europe, the Middle East and Asia at the same time, I'm thinking that current defense spending should be lower than Cold War levels by a fair amount.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a major foreign policy speech today at the Council on Foreign Relations office in DC. This is interesting, as the Obama administration released its National Security Strategy only a few months ago, so one would think that a major speech by the Secretary of State would be pretty superfluous.
The guts of Clinton's speech can be excerpted as follows:
[L]et me say it clearly: The United States can, must, and will lead in this new century....
Architecture is the art and science of designing structures that serve our common purposes, built to last and withstand stress. That's what we seek to build - a network of alliances and partnerships, regional organizations and global institutions, that is durable and dynamic enough to help us meet today's challenges and adapt to threats that we cannot even conceive of, just as our parents never dreamt of melting glaciers or dirty bombs....
After more than a year and a half, we have begun to see the dividends of our strategy. We are advancing America's interests and making progress on some of our most pressing challenges. Today we can say with confidence that this model of American leadership works, and that it offers our best hope in a dangerous world.
I'd like to outline several steps we are taking to implement this strategy....
First, we have turned to our closest allies, the nations that share our most fundamental values and interests -- and our commitment to solving common problems. From Europe and North America to East Asia and the Pacific, we are renewing and deepening the alliances that are the cornerstone of global security and prosperity....
[T]he second step in our strategy for global leadership is to help build the capacity of developing partners. To help countries obtain the tools and support they need to solve their own problems and help solve our common problems. To help people lift themselves, their families, and their societies out of poverty, away from extremism, and toward sustainable progress. The Obama Administration views development as a strategic, economic, and moral imperative - as central to advancing American interests as diplomacy and defense....
We must also take into account those countries that are growing rapidly and already playing more influential roles in their regions and in global affairs, such as China and India, Turkey, Mexico and Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa, as well as Russia, as it redefines its own role in the world.
Our third major step has been to deepen engagement with these emerging centers of influence....
[T]he fourth key step in our strategy has been to reinvigorate America's commitment to be an active transatlantic, Pacific and hemispheric leader....
[O]ur fifth step has been to reengage with global institutions and begin modernizing them to meet the evolving challenges of the 21st century. We need institutions that are flexible, inclusive, and complementary, instead of competing with one another for jurisdiction. Institutions that encourage nations to play productive roles, that marshal common efforts, and enforce the system of rights and responsibilities that binds us all....
As we strengthen and modernize regional and global institutions, the United States is also working to cement democracy, human rights, and the rule of law into their foundations. To construct an architecture of values that spans the globe and includes every man, woman and child. An architecture that can not only counter repression and resist pressure on human rights, but also extend those fundamental freedoms to places where they have been too long denied.
This is our sixth major step. We are upholding and defending the universal values that are enshrined in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (emphases added).
So, what do I think of all of this? Let's divide my reactions into what I think are the good, the bad, and the BS portions of Clinton's speech.
1) The Asia/Pacific. Clinton shoehorned this into her fourth tactic, but it was an effective articulation of the administration's calibrated approach towards China.
2) Russia. The Obama administration has certainly reversed what had been a badly deteriorating relationship with the Russian Federation. One quibble: Clinton said at one point that the relationship in January 2009, "invigorated spy novelists and arm chair strategists." Gimme a break: Anna Chapman did a much better job of invigorating spy novelists.
1) The overestimation of shared interests. Clinton talked about, "international diplomacy aimed at rallying nations to solve common problems and achieve shared aspirations" as a constant of American foreign policy. That's great -- but what about the areas where values and aspirations are not shared? There were far too many Pollyannish paragraphs in this speech.
2) The underemphasis on patience. Clinton used a good turn of phrase -- "strategic patience" -- to talk about the time required to see some of these foreign policy initiatives bear fruit. This should have been played up much more. Indeed, the exemplar Clinton gave of her foreign policy vision -- Iran -- does not really look all that successful right now. The speechwriter should have also tied in this notion of patience with American determination and resolve.
1) Europe. The whole section on strengthening bilateral and multilateral ties to Europe almost caused me to lose my cornflakes. I mean, c'mon. Is forcing the Europeans to cut down their number of seats in the IMF an example of strengthening alliances? I see the intrinsic merit in occasionally dissing the Europeans, but don't tell me that anything transatlantic has been "strengthened" over the past 18 months.
2) The entire "global architecture" theme: You know, it's a funny thing: the revamped G-20 is, in many ways, at the center of the whole "remaking the global architecture" idea. Guess how many times it was mentioned in this speech? Once. If the State Department thinks the Iran policy is a more successful case than the G-20, then how can I possible have any faith in any new global governance structure?
Am I missing anything?
My latest bloggingheads diavlog is with National Security Network's Heather Hurlburt. We talk about the Park51 controversy and its effect on national security, the prospect for direct talks between Israel and Palestine, Iran's nuclear program, and what the hell is going on at the Cato Institute:
Watch the whole thing, but my favorite clip comes at the end, in which Heather and I envisage how VH1 would make a Behind the Think Tanks program sound compelling: "Against all odds, Heather Hurlburt had achieved influence and gravitas at NSN. Unfortunately, her addiction to cable TV appearances would also cause her tragic downfall....."
The Obama administration, citing evidence of continued troubles inside Iran’s nuclear program, has persuaded Israel that it would take roughly a year — and perhaps longer — for Iran to complete what one senior official called a “dash” for a nuclear weapon, according to American officials.
Administration officials said they believe the assessment has dimmed the prospect that Israel would pre-emptively strike against the country’s nuclear facilities within the next year, as Israeli officials have suggested in thinly veiled threats.
As a general rule, a lack of bombing certainly seems like good news. The question is, why? What's slowing down the Iranians?
It is unclear whether the problems that Iran has had enriching uranium are the result of poor centrifuge design, difficulty obtaining components or accelerated Western efforts to sabotage the nuclear program....
Some of Iran’s enrichment problems appear to have external origins. Sanctions have made it more difficult for Iran to obtain precision parts and specialty metals. Moreover, the United States, Israel and Europe have for years engaged in covert attempts to disrupt the enrichment process by sabotaging the centrifuges.
The sanctions and the lack of technical competence are probably heloping, but if I had to guess, I'd wager that the covert attempts at sabotage are yielding the most promising results. The thing is, no administration can publicly say, "hey, everyone should relax about Iran's nuclear program, cause we've got covert operatives crawling all around Natanz, Bushehr, and Qom." So, the public face of U.S. foreign policy towards Iran's nuclear program remains sanctions and a willingness to negotiate. The optics of this policy posture don't look good.
Now, I don't know this to be true -- it's possible that covert action has yielded little in the way of results. Still, this might be a situation in which no news on Iran is actually good news.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
No president can reasonably be expected to put a ton of political muscle behind a lost cause, and major progress on, say, the Doha round, was pretty clearly a lost cause from the day Obama entered office. In the face of a catastrophic global recession, there was never even the slightest chance of gaining support either at home or abroad for any major trade initiatives, and it's simply not reasonable to expect Obama to put any energy behind it. Not only would it have gone nowhere, it might even have been counterproductive. Better to wait until the global climate provides at least a bit of a tailwind.
Second, this isn't a classroom, where you get an F for not showing up. In politics, you get an F for being counterproductive. Obama hasn't been. He's simply ignored trade as an issue. But he hasn't done any harm, and under the circumstances that's quite possibly about as much as a trade enthusiast could have hoped for.
Avent concurs. He notes that global trade has survived and thrived after the Great Recession, concluding, "The global economy has lived to fight another day, and that's something to appreciate."
These are interesting points, but I fear that Drum and Avent are far too easy in their grading. Rewarding Obama for not making things worse on the trade front is like rewarding him for not invading Pakistan -- kudos for not pursuing a spectacularly bad idea, but really, is that a positive accomplishment? I think not. Or to use another grading analogy -- students can receive an F even if they don't plagiarize.
As for Obama resisting the tides of protectionism, I'll credit the separation of powers a bit more than Drum or Avent. The U.S. political system is arranged to make it very difficult for anyone to change the status quo. Even if Barack Obama wanted to pull the United States out of the World Trade Organization, for example, he likely couldn't have gotten the necessary votes in Congress. The Obama administration has mildly resisted more hawkish member of Congress to "get tough" with China. That's about it in terms of preventing protectionism. When I said Obama had done almost nothing on trade, I wasn't kidding.
If I have a student who barely puts in any work and nevertheless writes great papers, they'll receive a good grade. The outcome matters more as one matriculates. A student who barely puts in any work and has nothing to show for it? F city.
Your humble blogger will be a bit more focused on the Middle East for the next ten days. That's because I'll be going on the road to Israel and the Occupied Territories as part of
IR summer camp a fact-finding trip sponsored by the good people at Academic Exchange.
I tried talking the folks at MTV into bringing along a camera crew to film a Jersey Shore-type of show:
ME: This is an awesome trip. You'll get lots of good footage!!
MTV: Who else is going?
MTV: No, no, what are their Jersey Shore monikers?
ME: Oh, well, let's see, there's LJ, Bobby, Debbie, Marty, Mad Skillz Mikey, Steph, Goldie, Work of Art, A-Down, KupKake, D-Lake, Valentino, B-Woww, and "The Drezner," among others.
MTV: Cool names!! Whatcha gonna be doing?
ME: Meeting with high-ranking Israeli, Palestinian and civil society leaders to get a nuanced sense of what's really going on.
Well, their loss.
Seriously, as embarrassing as it is for a Jewish kid raised in Connecticut to admit, this will be my first visit to Israel. The trip will hopefully afford me an opportunity to be
co-opted by the Israel Lobby get a better understanding of how Israelis and Palestinians think about the situation over there. I'm sure I will learn a lot - and I'll be sure to provide the readers of Foreignpolicy.com plenty of updates about B-Woww's binge drinking what I've learned along the way.
Jesse Lichtenstein's New York Times Magazine profile of the State Department's Jared Cohen and Alec Ross does a fine job of discussing the pros and cons of government efforts to use Twitter, Facebook et al in order to promote U.S. interests. FP's Evgeny Morozov is quoted liberally as the voice of skepticism.
What I found particularly interesting was the way that this kind of advocacy has turned Cohen and Ross into Internet celebrities:
On Twitter, Cohen, who is 28, and Ross, who is 38, are among the most followed of anyone working for the U.S. government, coming in third and fourth after Barack Obama and John McCain. This didn’t happen by chance. Their Twitter posts have become an integral part of a new State Department effort to bring diplomacy into the digital age, by using widely available technologies to reach out to citizens, companies and other nonstate actors. Ross and Cohen’s style of engagement — perhaps best described as a cross between social-networking culture and foreign-policy arcana — reflects the hybrid nature of this approach. Two of Cohen’s recent posts were, in order: “Guinea holds first free election since 1958” and “Yes, the season premier [sic] of Entourage is tonight, soooo excited!” This offhand mix of pop and politics has on occasion raised eyebrows and a few hackles (writing about a frappucino during a rare diplomatic mission to Syria; a trip with Ashton Kutcher to Russia in February), yet, together, Ross and Cohen have formed an unlikely and unprecedented team in the State Department. They are the public face of a cause with an important-sounding name: 21st-century statecraft....
One apparent paradox of 21st-century statecraft is that while new technologies have theoretically given a voice to the anonymous and formerly powerless (all you need is a camera phone to start a movement), they have also fashioned erstwhile faceless bureaucrats into public figures. Ross and Cohen have a kind of celebrity in their world — and celebrity in the Twitter age requires a surfeit of disclosure. Several senior members of the State Department with whom I spoke could not understand why anyone would want to read microdispatches from a trip to Twitter or, worse, from a State Department staff member’s child’s basketball game. But Secretary Clinton seemed neither troubled nor bewildered. “I think it’s to some extent pervasive now,” she told me in March. “It would be odd if the entire world were moving in that direction and the State Department were not.” Half of humanity is under 30, she reminded me. “Much of that world doesn’t really know as much as you might think about American values. One of the ways of breaking through is by having people who are doing the work of our government be human beings, be personalized, be relatable.”
I'm really not sure if network diplomacy will work, but these grafs highlight a looming problem even if it does work. Web 2.0 users succeed when they generate idiosyncratic, personalized content. Governments, on the other hand, are team operations, designed to harness different organizations into a common message. Ross and Cohen are clearly smart, talented people, but at some point they or someone like them in the government will commit an Octavia Nasr -- and what then?
Question to readers: is it possible for foreign policymakers to be good at Web 2.0 and good at traditional bureaucratese?
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this week calling the New START Treaty Obama's "worst foreign policy mistake yet." This prompted a fair amount of blowback. The New York Times' Peter Baker and Slate's Fred Kaplan
tore Romney a new one dissected the substance of Romney's argument and found it wanting. Senator John Kerry wrote a WaPo op-ed the next day that had a pretty contemptuous conclusion:
I have nothing against Massachusetts politicians running for president. But the world's most important elected office carries responsibilities, including the duty to check your facts even if you're in a footrace to the right against Sarah Palin. More than that, you need to understand that when it comes to nuclear danger, the nation's security is more important than scoring cheap political points.
Now reading through all of this, it seems pretty clear that Romney's substantive critique is weak tea. Objecting to the content of a treaty preamble is pretty silly. Claiming that the Russians could put ICBMs on their bombers because of the treaty indicates
Romney's ghost-writer doesn't know the first thing about the history of nuclear weapons some holes in the research effort.
Putting the substantive objections aside, there are some interesting implications to draw from this kerfuffle. First, START will be an easy test of the remaining power of the foreign policy mandarins. As Time's Michael Crowley points out, START has the support of former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Stephen Hadley, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Senator Richard Lugar.
If the Obama administration can't get Senate ratification of START despite the bipartisan support of the foreign policy community, well, it suggests that the foreign policy community doesn't have the political capital it once did. I posited earlier this year that START would pass because it was pretty unobtrusive and wouldn't play a big role in political campaigns. If GOP senators think differently, however, then you can kiss any foreign policy initiative that requires congressional approval bye-bye.
This could seriously hamper U.S. foreign policy. Politically, Romney was wise to pick on START, because its importance is not in the arms control. Boosters like Kerry will talk about START like its the greatest thing since sliced bread, when in point of fact it's a modest treaty that yields modest gains on the arms control front. No, START matters because its a signal of better and more stable relations with Moscow (much in the same way that NAFTA was not about trade so much as about ending a century-long contentious relationship with Mexico).
So even if Romney gets chewed up and spit out by the foreign policy mandarins, there's a way in which he'll win no matter what. By belittling the treaty, Romney will get its defenders to inflate its positive attributes. This will force analysts to say that "both sides have exaggerated their claims," putting Romney on par with the foreign policy mandarins.
Developing... in a bad way for the mandarins.
UPDATE: Barron YoungSmith makes a similar point over at TNR. He's even more pessimistic than I am:
[T]he responsible Republican foreign policy establishment is not coming back. Mandarins like George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker, who have all testified or written on behalf of the START treaty—calling it an integral, uncontroversial way of repairing the bipartisan arms-control legacy that sustained American foreign policy all the way up until the George W. Bush administration—are going to be dead soon (or they've drifted into the service of Democrats). The people who will take their place will be from a generation of superhawks, like John Bolton, Liz Cheney, and Robert Joseph, who are virulently opposed to the practice of negotiated arms control. Mitt Romney, though a moderate from Michigan, is not going to be the second coming of Gerald Ford.
Well.... this might be true, if you think Mitt Romney has his finger on the pulse of the GOP voter. Based on past experience, however, Mitt Romney has never been able to find that pulse.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Here's a conundrum I don't entirely understand. Maybe someone can explain it to me.
1. For the past year or so, we've seen a series of stories detailing the Obama administration's foreign policy process. The signal theme of these stories is that the White House is large and in charge of this process. While Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Gates are clearly influential, Obama and the Executive Office of the President are clearly the central node, disciplining everyone else into a single policy position.
2. The description of U.S. foreign policy towards Afghanistan to come out of the McChrystal imbroglio is one of serious bureaucratic wrangling, a Pentagon resistant to civilian oversight, petty carping, and significant press leakage.
How can both of these narratives be correct?
It's possible that David Brooks is correct and this is simply a case of garden-variety kvetching gone public. Or it's possible that Obama's strategic communications shop is too good at their job, exaggerating an orderly process that is fundamentally disorderly.
Which is it? Provide your answer to this paradox in the comments. Your humble blogger will ponder this question while on a small vacation in a
zombie-free quiet undisclosed locale.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Hmmm.... which magazine should I peruse online this AM.... maybe TNR? The National Interest? Nah, I'm not in the mood for deep thinking. I'll just look at Rolling Stone, that won't take much intellectual heavy lifting.... oh, look, a profile of General McChrystal.... hmmm.... um.... holy cats.
Since everyone and their mother has their take on this
Mongolian clusterf**k imbroglio already, I'm not going to bother linking to the rest of the blogosphere. Instead, just a few measured and a few off the cuff reactions:
1. Doris Kearns Goodwin makes the case in today's New York Times that Obama doesn't have to fire McChrystal, pointing out that Union General George McClellan was far ruder to Lincoln, and yet was not fired. This is historically true, but I'm not sure it's really the best example. To put it gently, McClellan was a lousy, timid general -- by letting him stay on, Lincoln accomplished little but to prolong the war.
2. I find myself in agreement with Tom Donnelly and William Kristol:
McChrystal should not be the only one to go. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and “AfPak” czar Richard Holbrooke should likewise either submit their resignations or be fired by President Obama. Vice President Biden and his surrogates should be told to sit down and be quiet, to stop fighting policy battles in the press. The administration's "team of rivals" approach is producing only rivalry.
They're right (see also David Ignatius). McChrystal did himself no favors in the RS article, but he's hardly the only Afghan policy heavyweight to be tarnished by the essay. Eikenberry poisoned the well with his press leaks last year, and Holbrooke is, well, Holbrooke. A clean sweep might be the best move Obama could make.
3) Speaking of neoconservatives, it's worth noting that, contra Josh Rogin's take, GOP policy wonks are reacting the way you would expect a loyal opposition to react. That is to say, sure, they're making hay of the problems with the Afghan strategy, but they're also quite firm in saying that Obama should dire McChrystal. See Kristol, Eliot Cohen, John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham.
This should not be terribly surprising. Neoconservatives have been pretty clear all along about civilian control of the military, and McChrystal's gaffes cut right to the heart of this issue.
4) One final point: beyond the descriptions of McChrystal and his aides acting like jackasses in Paris, the RS article was of little use. It presented a slanted portrait of COIN and it's advocates, and seemed determined to paint McChrystal in the worst light possible. As Blake Hounshell observed, it failed to note that at this stage it's impossible to evaluate the COIN strategy, because these approaches tend to have "darkest before the dawn" qualities.
What do you think?
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My assessment perfectly mirrors The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's assessment of Earth: mostly harmless.
First of all, when reading these documents, you need to separate the parts that seem really important from the parts that seem.... boilerplate. For example, consider this laughably overtaken-by-events pledge:
Effectively Manage Emergencies: We are building our capability to prepare for disasters to reduce or eliminate long-term effects to people and their property from hazards and to respond to and recover from major incidents. To improve our preparedness, we are integrating domestic all hazards planning at all levels of government and building key capabilities to respond to emergencies. We continue to collaborate with communities to ensure preparedness efforts are integrated at all levels of government with the private and nonprofit sectors. We are investing in operational capabilities and equipment, and improving the reliability and interoperability of communications systems for first responders. We are encouraging domestic regional planning and integrated preparedness programs and will encourage government at all levels to engage in long-term recovery planning. It is critical that we continually test and improve plans using exercises that are realistic in scenario and consequences.
Planning integration!! Community collaboration!! More integration!! Hey, that's killer material in the NSS. It's a good thing this stuff is being done to prepare for a real emergency. Oh, wait....
As to the portions that matter: it's not that bad. In contrast to some previous strategy documents, this NSS is an actual strategy rather than a laundry list of regions and countries. The administration wisely notes the connections between domestic economic vitality and the ability to project and husband power in a complex world. In contrast to a lot of criticism I read, the administration makes a clear distinction between allies (NATO, Japan) and partners (Russia, China). The attitude towards multilateral institutions is appropriately clear-eyed. Al Qaeda is discussed but not to the point of obsession. The strategy could have just quoted John Quincy Adams rather than trying to perfect his prose about promoting democracy abroad by practicing it at home -- but that's picking at nits.
So, most of it is harmless. There are two things that nagged at me after I'd finished it, however.
First, there's a mismatch between the Obama administration's emphasis on retrenchment/"hard choices" and their sincere commitment to eliminating nuclear weapons. From his 2007 Foreign Affairs essay onwards, every major strategy document has emphasized that the administration will "Pursue the Goal of a World Without Nuclear Weapons." This is the part of the NSS with feeling, and the part where the administration has racked up some significant achievements.
The thing is, a retrenchment strategy requires relying on the tools of power that yield the greatest bang for the buck. Nuclear weapons accomplish little as a means of compellence, but they are the best and most cost-effective deterrent capability imaginable. Now, nothing the Obama administration has done to date compromises that deterrent capability. They seem to be moving in that direction, however. Pledging to eliminate nuclear weapons involves investing a lot of diplomatic capital towards a goal that fundamentally contradicts the national interest of the United States.
The second problem is the strictly horatory nature of some of the key NSS planks. There's a lot of "rising fiscal and trade deficits will... necessitate hard choices in the years ahead" kind of talk in the document. There are repeated emphases on getting America's fiscal house in order. Which is great, until we get to the paragraph on how this is going to happen:
Reduce the Deficit: We cannot grow our economy in the long term unless we put the United States back on a sustainable fiscal path. To begin this effort, the Administration has proposed a 3-year freeze in nonsecurity discretionary spending, a new fee on the largest financial services companies to recoup taxpayer losses for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and the closing of tax loopholes and unnecessary subsidies. The Administration has created a bipartisan fiscal commission to suggest further steps for medium-term deficit reduction and will work for fiscally responsible health insurance reform that will bring down the rate of growth in health care costs, a key driver of the country’s fiscal future.
That's it? I was expecting a bit more. True, budget pledges in a National Security Strategy don't count for much, but would it have been so bad to articulate a more detailed vision of our fiscal future? If the administration can pledge to double exports in the next five years, can't it put in a goal for what the debt/GDP ratio will look like by 2015?
Still, on the whole, it's a decent strategy document as these things go.
Mostly harmless. Mostly.
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One of the occupational hazards U.S. foreign policy wonks possess in abundance is the tendency to forget that domestic politics is really important. Regardless of ideology, most members of the foreign policy community despair of how little time the President devotes to foreign affairs -- because he cares about things like "getting re-elected" or "maintaining popular support" or "responding to public opinion."
I'd like to think that I'm at least aware of this failing, and remind myself on a daily basis that Tip O'Neill had a point.
So, with that bias acknowledged, it's still worth pointing out that Barack Obama has foolishly decided to blow off the most dynamic region in the globe -- again:
President Obama canceled his trip to Australia, Indonesia and Guam late Thursday night as oil continued to stream into the Gulf of Mexico in what he has called the worst environmental disaster in American history.
His decision came as officials reported progress containing the oil leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
Mr. Obama is to visit the Gulf Friday to assess the situation and meet with officials responding to the crisis. While the White House statement offered no reason for scratching the Asia trip this time, officials in recent days had grown increasingly convinced that it was untenable for the president to leave the country for a week with the oil spill still unchecked....
This was the second time Mr. Obama has scrubbed the trip to Australia and Indonesia. He was originally scheduled to travel there in March but canceled at the last minute to stay in Washington to lobby for passage of his health care legislation. He also had passed up a trip to Indonesia in connection with a regional summit meeting held in Singapore in November 2009 (emphasis added).
Correct me if I'm wrong, but for the past month President Obama has been in the country, making many, many pronouncements about the oil leak. You know what effect that has had on the spill? Absolutely zero. There is no policy reason whatsoever for Obama to stay in the country because of the spill (at this point, I'm not even sure there's a political reason, but will defer to commenters on that question).
What's particularly frustrating is that Peter Baker's story contains the seeds that contradict Obama's justification for staying in the country:
White House officials said they will not let the focus on the oil spill detract from the rest of the president’s economic, legislative and foreign agenda, pointing out that he still seems likely to sign fiunancial regulation reform by next month, push through his Supreme Court nominee and win sanctions against Iran at the United Nations Security Council.
“The American people don’t elect somebody, I think, that they don’t believe can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, told reporters earlier Thursday. “Sometimes it feels like we walk and chew gum and juggle on a unicycle all at the same time. I get that.”
But, he added, “there’s a whole lot of people working on a whole lot of things in the White House, and we’re able to do more than several things at once.” (emphasis added)
That's great, Bob -- except that there are certain things that only a President can do. Unless he has some engineering expertise that he's been keeping under wraps, there's very little that Obama can do by staying in the countrry to focus on the spill. On the other hand, Obama's comparative advantage has been to help improve U.S. relations with the rest of the world. Australia and Indonesia are vital supporter states, and yet this president has just given them the cold shoulder -- for the second time, remember -- in order to focus on domestic politics.
The Obama administration has dealt with North Korea as best they could, and after some stumbles have moved down the learning curve in handling the China portfolio. Their approach to the rest of the Asia/Pacific region, however, has gone from sclerotic to just plain awful. The United States needs good relations with these countries -- but this administration has plainly revealed its preferences on this issue. If you look at the Obama administration's behavior, in their minds, the Pacific Rim simply doesn't count.
Question to readers: is the Gulf spill such a political crisis that it requires the Obama administration to blow off allies?
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I'll have a longer reaction to the 2010 National Security Strategy once I've, you know, actually read it. Of course, me needing to read it will not stop commenters from commenting. So fire away.
Through the magic of the search function, here's a short list of what's hot and what's not in the NSS: Here are the number of mentions for the following words:
Al Qa'ida: 21
North Korea: 3
Doha round: 1
The Obama administration has been trying to road-test the National Security Strategy. Last month is was NSC Advisor James Jones' address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy -- which is now remembered more for a politically incorrect joke than anything else.
This weekend it was the president's turn in his commencement address at West Point. Is there anythng of interest to note? Some are focusing on what he said about Iraq (victory + withdrawal of combat troops this year). Let's focus on Obama's bigthink, which I'd label realist internationalism.
Here's the realist sections:
[W]e must first recognize that our strength and influence abroad begins with steps we take at home. We must educate our children to compete in an age where knowledge is capital, and the marketplace is global. We must develop clean energy that can power new industry and unbound us from foreign oil and preserve our planet. We have to pursue science and research that unlocks wonders as unforeseen to us today as the microchip and the surface of the moon were a century ago.
Simply put, American innovation must be the foundation of American power - because at no time in human history has a nation of diminished economic vitality maintained its military and political primacy. And so that means that the civilians among us, as parents and community leaders, elected officials, business leaders, we have a role to play. We cannot leave it to those in uniform to defend this country - we have to make sure that America is building on its strengths....
And so a fundamental part of our strategy for our security has to be America's support for those universal rights that formed the creed of our founding. And we will promote these values above all by living them - through our fidelity to the rule of law and our Constitution, even when it's hard; even when we're being attacked; even when we're in the midst of war.
Seriously, that last paragraph could have been the mash-up version of John Quincy Adams' 1821 July 4th speech.
Here's the internationalist part:
Yes, we are clear-eyed about the shortfalls of our international system. But America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation - we have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice, so nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities and face consequences when they don't.
So we have to shape an international order that can meet the challenges of our generation. We will be steadfast in strengthening those old alliances that have served us so well, including those who will serve by your side in Afghanistan and around the globe. As influence extends to more countries and capitals, we also have to build new partnerships, and shape stronger international standards and institutions.
Now, realism and multilateralism don't go hand in hand terribly well -- here's the key paragraph where Obama tries to link them:
The burdens of this century cannot fall on our soldiers alone. It also cannot fall on American shoulders alone. Our adversaries would like to see America sap its strength by overextending our power. And in the past, we've always had the foresight to avoid acting alone. We were part of the most powerful wartime coalition in human history through World War II. We stitched together a community of free nations and institutions to endure and ultimately prevail during a Cold War.
Essentially, the administration will try to argue that multilateralism serves as a force multiplier, allowing America to extend its reach while burden-sharing with supporters who benefot from an American-led international order.
Does this formulation work? I like the emphasis on internal renewal, and I tend to think that the United States does retrenchment strategies better than most countries. That said, one problem with multilateralism is that burden-sharing often turns into free-riding.
Another p;roblem is that without an animating idea, it's difficult to retain multilateral solidarity. "Multilateralism for multilateralism's sake" doesn't work unless you live in Brussels -- and even then it's a bit dodgy. "All for one, and one for keeping order" has its virtues, but emotionsal resonance isn't one of them.
There has to be a purpose beyond order to rally allies to a cause. We'll see if the Obama team has one when the NSS rolls out.
A few days ago, Rob Farley made an interesting point about the asymmetry of policy successes and failures:
Crisis prevention and effective crisis response... are inherently less interesting and less attention-getting than failed crisis response. If the 9/11 hijackers had been captured prior to conducting their attacks, very few people outside the intelligence community would have much recollection of a crucial policy victory. If the Bush administration had conducted adequate preparation for Katrina and responded effectively, there’d be relatively little shared memory of the disaster.
Success and failure in crisis response, consequently, have asymmetric political effect. The Obama administration’s response to the Haiti earthquake, in my view, has been a resounding success for responsible, capable governance. No one will remember that in six months. Bush’s response to Katrina will endure in the political memory for decades.
I bring this up because of the attempted Times Square bombing, and the rather bizarre effort by the Pakistani Taliban to claim credit for it. This is bizarre for two reasons: 1) There appears to be no evidence to support their claim; and 2) All reports suggest this was a pretty amateurish effort. Jonathan Chait captures my view of this:
Rushing to take credit for a bungled attack is fairly pathetic. It's another piece of evidence of al Qaeda's severely degraded capability of launching attacks on American soil, where leaving a smoke-filled car in Manhattan is an operation worth boasting about. The Christmas bombing likewise failed on account of miserably low quality.
I'm not making an argument for complacency. It's obvious that al Qaeda wants to kill as many Americans as possible. But it's equally obvious that our counter-terrorism strategy is actually working. We should not feel hesitant to celebrate success.
It's worth noting that both the Bush and Obama administrations -- not to mention the NYPD -- deserve credit for the eleven thwarted attacks in New York City alone. But, as Farley notes, you don't get credit for things when the counterfactual is not observable or verifiable.
Of course, the policy is seen as working until a bomb actually goes off in the United States.
My question to readers: what precise combination of skill, will and fortuna has permitted the U.S. homeland to be relatively secure? How much credit does the U.S. goverment deserve?
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There's been a raging debate the past few weeks over whether conservatives suffer from what Julian Sanchez labeled "epistemic closure." If conservatives get their information and opinion only by listening to other conservatives, the argument runs, they will be unprepared and unconcerned about criticisms from outside their intellectual cocoon.
The blogosphere has been having a grand old time with this debate, and whether the problem afflicts conservatives more than liberals (click here for Patricia Cohen's roundup in today's New York Times). Paul Krugman goes so far as to argue that this problem has clearly affected macroeconomics in freshwater schools.
This leads me to wonder if the problem affects the GOP wing of the foreign policy community. And as much as David Frum might argue for greater internal debate within the GOP on the political facts of life, for example, he was never shy in attacking the realpolitik wing of the Republican foreign policy establishment (more here).
A few years ago I implicitly made this kind of critique when it came to neoconservatives. That saids, my gut instinct on this is that the epistemic closure problem is not nearly as big a deal in foreign policy circles as it is in domestic policy circles. That is to say, conservative foreign policy wonks do collect their information from a diverse array of sources. They might not agree with every scrap of information about a particular issue, but they usually acknowledge its existence. A quick glance at FP's own Shadow Government tells me that even if I disagree with these bloggers on policy recommendations, I still think we're operating in the same epistemic universe.
I'll get to why I think this is true later, but for now, I'm curious if my experience corresponds to my readers. So, a genuinely open question -- is there an epistemic closure problem among the conservative foreign policy community?
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A persistent conservative critique of U.S. foreign policy at the moment is that the Obama administration treats U.S. allies more harshly than U.S. adversaries. Obama is allegedly treating Israel worse than Iran, India worse than China, Eastern Europe worse than Russia, etc.
Much of this is exaggerated -- the U.S. is not treating Iran better than Israel by any stretch of the imagination. Some of this is an example of Obama's realpolitik-style strategy kicking in more than anything else. Still, the fact that I was able to come up with three examples pretty quickly suggests that maybe conservatives are onto something. What's interesting, however, is that no one mentions Japan in this litany.
This is a bit surprising: Japan is an older ally than any of these other countries, and it's a pretty important country. According to the Financial Times' Mure Dickie and David Pilling, the bilateral relationship with the United States has been fraught with peril as of late:
Tokyo is "struggling" to resolve a dispute over moving a US marine base before a self-imposed May deadline, says Katsuya Okada, Japanese foreign minister.
Mr Okada insisted, in an interview with the Financial Times, that the seven-month-old Democratic party-led government was committed to Japan's alliance with the US and determined to come up with a plan for the Futenma air base on the southern island of Okinawa that would be acceptable to Washington.
However, he said Yukio Hatoyama, DPJ leader and prime minister, was "not confident" that this could be done. He said Japan faced a "very difficult road" in winning approval for a plan to replace a deal to move Futenma from its city centre site to Okinawa's less populated Henoko Bay.
DPJ efforts to move at least some of the functions of Futenma out of Okinawa and the ruling party's call for a "more equal" relationship with the US have sparked concerns in Washington that Japanese commitment to the 50-year-old alliance is weakening....
Why isn't Obama catching flak for this? I reckon there are two reasons:
1) Much of the blame lies legitimately with Japan's Hatoyama government. As the FT story documents, made a fair number of foreign policy blunders.
2) The Obama administration is further to the right than the Hatoyama administration.
My point here is not that this criticism is disingenuous -- it's just awfully convenient that the allies that keep coming up are the ones with conservative parties in power.
And yes, this is a bipartisan thing, too -- back in the day, Democrats assailed the Bush administration for giving the cold shoulder to Gerhard Schroeder, for example. This suggests that the occasional ruffling of allies has less to do with the particular president and more to do with the inherent tension that exists between permanent alliances and the occasional shift in interests (realists tend to prefer the reverse situation).
TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images
Views of the US around the world have improved sharply over the past year, a BBC World Service poll suggests.
For the first time since the annual poll began in 2005, America's influence in the world is now seen as more positive than negative.
The improved scores for the US coincided with Barack Obama becoming president, a BBC correspondent notes.
As in 2009, Germany is viewed most favourably while Iran and Pakistan are seen as the most negative influences.
Nearly 30,000 people in 28 countries were interviewed for the poll, between November 2009 and February 2010.
Now, on the one hand, this is particularly impressive, because the people of the world are in a really sour mood. If you look at the entire report, the United States is the only great power and one of only two countries (South Africa is the other) to record an uptick in positive influence over the past year. This is also fully consistent with other surveys demonstrating an "Obama effect."
On the other hand, it's worth asking whether this boost in U.S. favorability ratings has yielded anything in the way of tangible policy gains. Sullivan avers that:
[I]n trying to defuse as well as defeat Jihadist terror, this kind of profound change could serve America's interests well. The idea that a better reputation abroad is meaningless uplift is foolish. It helps the US leverage its power to greater ends. The more popular the US is, the likelier it is to have a positive impact on other countries' leaders.
There's some truth to this -- otherwise you don't get the largest number of world leaders on American soil since the founding of the United Nations. That said, I do wonder just how much leverage this kind of soft power carries with it. Consider the ability of the U.S. to enact multilateral economic sanctions. The Bush administration, at the depths of its unpopularity, was still able to get the UN Security Council to pass three rounds of sanctions against Iran, as well as measures against North Korea. The Obama administration, despite a serious effort to open a dialogue with Iran, is encountering resistance from China, Brazil, and Turkey in its efforts to craft another round of sanctions.
All else equal, it's better to see these numbers going up. I'm just unsure of how much this translates into usable leverage.
What do you think?
If there is an Obama doctrine emerging, it is one much more realpolitik than his predecessor’s, focused on relations with traditional great powers and relegating issues like human rights and democracy to second-tier concerns. He has generated much more good will around the world after years of tension with Mr. Bush, and yet he does not seem to have strong personal friendships with many world leaders.
“Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. “If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41,” the first President George Bush, Mr. Emanuel said.
He added, “He knows that personal relationships are important, but you’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation.”
Stephen G. Rademaker, a former official in the George W. Bush administration, said: “For a president coming out of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, it’s remarkable how much he has pursued a great power strategy. It’s almost Kissingerian. It’s not very sentimental. Issues of human rights do not loom large in his foreign policy, and issues of democracy promotion, he’s been almost dismissive of.”
Well, a couple of thoughts. First, the idea of George H.W. Bush disdaining personal relationships is somewhat absurd. Bush 41 was notorious for his thank you cards and supersized Rolodex. On the margins, personal rapport among leaders does count for something, so this certainly helped Bush advance the national inrest.
So that makes Bush different from Obama, right? Well, let's click over to Scott Wilson's story in today's Washington Post now, shall we?
[I]n convening his first international summit -- the largest on a single issue in Washington history -- [Obama] focused more squarely on his relationship with world leaders. He slapped backs, kissed cheeks and met one on one with more than a dozen heads of state, leavening his appeal to shared security interests with a more personal diplomacy.
The approach marked a shift for Obama as he seeks to translate his popularity abroad into concrete support from fellow leaders for his foreign policy agenda, most urgently now in his push for stricter sanctions against Iran.
"He's in charge, he's chairing the meetings, and this is where his personality plays a big part," said Pierre Vimont, the French ambassador to the United States, who compared Obama's role during the summit to the way he led the bipartisan health-care meeting at Blair House in February....
Obama's attention to his guests began on the summit's opening night, when he spent more than an hour and a half greeting the 46 foreign leaders and three heads of international organizations he invited.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom administration officials describe as high on the list of the European leaders Obama most admires, received a kiss on each cheek at the final bilateral meeting.
Obama bowed formally to Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. He used both hands to shake the hands of some leaders and joked with others.
David Miliband, Britain's foreign secretary, said such personal diplomacy is "quite important" at summits, especially one about an issue he said is "often seen as administrative."
"When Obama stands up and says 'My friend Dmitry Medvedev' or 'My friend Nicolas Sarkozy,' he's right, and that's important," Miliband said. "He's made a number of friends of world leaders, and I think that's a testament to why so many arrived to take part in this."
Wow, so it really is George H.W. Obama, right?
As someone who thinks George H.W. Bush has been vastly underrated, I'd love to say yes. But this gets confusing to your humble blogger. After all, some have argued that Obama is really no different than George W. Bush. I'm also pretty sure I've read somewhere, way back in early 2010, that Obama is really Jimmy Carter. So I'm not sure this comparison can or should stick.
Moving from personalities to ideas, the realist/idealist divide, you still wind up with a muddle. Bob Kagan is right to say that Obama's desire for a nuclear-free world is about as idealistic as one can get. Similarly, Obama's affirmation of multilateralism doesn't seem terribly realist either. On the other hand, his policies towards great power rivals like Russia and China, and dependent allies like Israel and Afghanistan, seem pretty damn realist. Much like his Nobel Peace Prize address, the Obama administration's latest foray into the less shallow waters of international relations theory offers a sliver of support to all major IR approaches.
Which box you put him in, I suspect, depends on which policy dimension you think matters most. Human rights advocates will use the r-word; fans of nuclear deterrence will use the i-word. As someone concerned with the management of great power politics, I'd be comfortable calling Obama an realist, but I'm biased -- I speculated that this was the approach the post-Bush president would be forced to pursue.
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Your humble blogger has long been a believer that, in matters of American foreign policy, the process can matter just as much as the outcome. Sure, sometimes fortuitous foreign policies emerge from bad decison-making structures, and sometimes bad foreign policies have been thoroughly vetted. On the whole, however, good decision-making processes should lead to good decision-making outcomes.
What makes for a good foreign policy decision-making process? That question comes to mind after reading David Sanger and Peter Baker's NYT story on the Nuclear Posture Review that's going to be unfurled today:
The strategy to be released on Tuesday is months late, partly because Mr. Obama had to adjudicate among advisers who feared he was not changing American policy significantly enough, and those who feared that anything too precipitous could embolden potential adversaries. One senior official said that the new strategy was the product of 150 meetings, including 30 convened by the White House National Security Council, and that even then Mr. Obama had to step in to order rewrites.
That's a lot of meetings for a document of questionable utility.
This also backs up the themese from last week's excellent Financial Times story by Daniel Dombey and Edward Luce on the Obama administration's foreign policy decision-making process that's gotten a lot of play. Over at Shadow Government, Peter Feaver provides some useful cautions about reading too much into stories like this. For the purposes of this blog post, however, I'm just gonna throw those cautions right out the window. Because after reading Dombeyand Luce, I'm both horrified and impressed by what the Obama administration is doing.
Let's start with the good. It's clear that this White House has centralized foreign policy decision-making in a way that we haven't seen since the Bush/Scowcroft years. Presidents have to claim ownership of their foreign policies, so this is cheering news.
There's also a lot of praise in the story for the revival of the NSC interagency process -- particularly the way Tom Donilon is running the deputies' committee:
Also the organiser of Mr Obama's 9.30am national security briefing, Mr Donilon reinstated the paper trails needed to prevent intra-governmental anarchy, using the model de-vised by Brent Scowcroft, national se-curity adviser to George Bush senior and Gerald Ford. Vice-president Joe Biden's team was also incorporated to prevent the kind of "parallel process" Dick Cheney used to circumvent the bureaucracy under George W. Bush.
"If you look for the 2002 or 2003 meeting where the decision to go to war in Iraq was taken, you cannot find it," says the senior official. "By getting the process right, we are improving the quality of decisions."....
The refurbished machinery was perhaps most in evidence during the build-up to Mr Obama's decision in December to send another 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan - a journey that took four months and involved him in 40 hours of Oval Office meetings.
Now, the bad -- and there's more of it than I would like to see.
First, while the White House appears to be running the foreign policy machine, the parts of the White House that are involved should provoke serious consternation. The National Security Advisor, James Jones, is characterized as disengaged. As a result, we get this anecdote:
The lack of a strong national security adviser has created recurring difficulties. Perhaps the best example is the Arab-Israeli peace process, which Mr Obama launched on his second day in office when he appointed George Mitchell as his envoy. Three months later, Mr Obama insisted Benjamin Netanyahu freeze all settlements activity in order to boost Arab confidence in the talks.
In a heated showdown in the Oval Office last May, in which Mr Netanyahu refused to accede to Mr Obama's demand, the only officials present were Mr Emanuel and David Axelrod, senior adviser to Mr Obama in office and during the campaign. Gen Jones was not there. The fallout put the talks in abeyance and damped high Arab hopes for Mr Obama.
"The question is, which bright spark advised the president to demand a settlements freeze without working out what the next step should be when Netanyahu inevitably said 'No'?" says Leslie Gelb, an official in the Carter administration and former head of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Why wasn't George Mitchell in the room? Where was Jones?"
Um... what Gelb said. Seriously, having only Axelrod and Emanuel in the room is doubly disturbing. First, they're not foreign policy experts. Second, having political operatives in the room sends the signal to Netanyahu that the U.S. Israel relationship really is all about domestic politics for Obama. I don't think that's true, but if Netanyahu thinks that it's true, then it could explain a lot of his recent behavior.
Now we get to Obama himself. The implicit message in the story is that he's his own NSC advisor:
Only briefly acquainted with Mr Obama beforehand, General Jones, a retired four-star marine corps general, shows little interest in running the "inter-agency" process - a key part of the job. Somewhat unconventionally, Gen Jones travels frequently and is thus often out of town. Unusually, it is Mr Obama himself who usually chairs the weekly national security council, known as the "principals meeting", not Gen Jones.
Yeah, this is very unusual. Sure, you might think, "hey, this is great, POTUS is really involved!!" Except that when the boss is in the room, the staff will often have a tendency to bite their tongues and refrain from airing discordant views. This will be true even with someone like Obama, who use to lead seminars for a living and by all reports likes having provocative discussions.
Dombey and Luce note in the end that, "Mr Obama has a sharp learning curve, which means his administration continues to evolve." I hope so, because if the article is accurate (and it seems to jibe with prior stories) then there are definite areas for improvement.
My provisional grade: a straight B.
Over at Politico, Laura Rozen posts about the subtle efforts by the United States to moderate the United Nations Human Rights Council's behavior. These efforts have yielded... well, let's see what Rozen's got:
“We have started to shake things up,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Suzanne Nossel told POLITICO, although she added, change is “incremental and slower than we would like.”
For the last eleven years, the UN human rights body has run a resolution that bans defamation of religion. The resolution is aimed at preventing the publication of for instance the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that enraged many in the Muslim world.
The resolution, opposed by advocates of freedom of expression, passed again last week at the Geneva body, but this time by its smallest margin ever, with 20 countries voting for the resolution, 17 against, and with 8 abstentions.
"It is encouraging that more states are starting to stand up against initiatives that threaten to undermine human rights," Human Rights Watch’s Julie de Rivero said. "Countries such as Zambia and Argentina that voted against the ‘defamation of religions' resolution are demonstrating positive leadership at the Human Rights Council."
The U.S. has been trying to push member countries instead towards an alternative resolution that would counter racial and religious intolerance, such as Switzerland’s minaret ban, while protecting freedom of speech.
“We achieved a consensus resolution that halted efforts towards a binding treaty that would infringe on freedom of speech," Nossel said, explaining that it was a neutral procedural resolution, with no language about banning defamation or new binding protocols.
That, plus a new U.S.-backed resolution on human rights in Guinea following the September 2009 massacre and stronger resolutions on the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma and North Korea mark what Nossel described as accomplishments on the long road toward the U.S.’s objective of turning the Council into a more credible and effective force on behalf of human rights globally.
Hmmm... in terms of measuring progress, I think I would translate Nossel's "incremental and slower than we would like" to mean "slower than continental drift" in plain English.
My point here is not to suggest that Nossel and her compatriots are doing a bad job -- far from it. They have made some inroads into the so-ridiculous-it's-easy-to-lampoon-it nature of the Human Rights Council.
But these are ridiculously small inroads, and extremely difficult to sell politically. Rozen's a sympathetic reporter on this issue, but the intrinsic silliness of the Human Rights Council remains largely undisturbed after reading this story. The Obama administration's engagement strategy with the institution have yielded nonzero but meager returns.
A politically sustainable strategy of patient multilateralism requires the occasional tangible success to point to by its boosters. I doubt the Human Rights Council will be producing any of those deliverables anytime soon.
I bring this up because Ethan Bronner's news analysis in the New York Times today nicely captures divisions within the United States and Israel over the importance of the peace process going forward. It also suggests two more questions that should be asked:
[T]wo main issues are keeping American-Israeli tensions on the front burner: disagreement on the effects of what happens in Jerusalem on the rest of the Middle East, and the strength of the Palestinian leadership.
The Obama administration considers establishing a Palestinian state central to other regional goals; it also believes that the Palestinians, led by Mr. Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, are ready to run a country. The Netanyahu government disagrees on both counts. It thinks the issue of Palestinian statehood has little effect on broader American concerns and is also dubious about the ability of the Palestinians to create an entity that can resist a radical takeover.
So, my questions to you:
1) Do you believe that the Israel/Palestine issue is central to wider regional policy concerns?
2) Is the current Palestinian leadership capable of running an independent Palestine?
Spencer Ackerman doesn't think the Senate will ratify the START treaty because the GOP wants revenge on health care:
It would be a mistake to view the outcome of this vote as a function of the treaty’s merits. Look at it from the GOP’s political vantage. It’s an opportunity to deal Obama’s hippie aspiration for a nuke-free world an embarrassing setback, right after suffering a humiliating defeat on health care, the issue that fight most to their voters. Every Republican interest inclines them against voting for the bill, and the constitutional math of treaty ratification gives them the chance to give Obama a bloody nose in front of the world. If the Obama team starts arguing the merits of the bill as opposed to outlining a raw-politics strategy for passage, then the treaty is fucked. (emphasis added)
I agree that treaty ratification is not going to be easy -- but Ackerman's political acumen seems off, and his timetable is way off. As Peter Baker and Ellen Barry reported for the New York Times, START won't be going up for a vote anytime soon:
The two sides have begun preparing for a signing ceremony in Prague on April 8, timing it to mark the anniversary of Mr. Obama’s speech in the Czech capital outlining his vision for eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons....
Mr. Obama met at the White House on Wednesday with Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the senior Democrat and Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to brief them on the negotiations. Mr. Kerry later said he would hold hearings between Easter and Memorial Day on the history of arms control and promised action by year’s end. “I assured the president that we strongly support his efforts and that if the final negotiations and all that follows go smoothly, we will work to ensure that the Senate can act on the treaty this year,” Mr. Kerry said.
Lugar told FP's Josh Rogin that "he intends to support the agreement and hearings could begin in May."
So, we know two things. First, by the time hearings and votes on START are taken, health care will have faded from view. Second, at least one prominent Republican senator intends to vote in favor of the treaty.
Does this mean START will sail through? Hardly. But it's also not going to fail because GOP Senators decided en masse to "give Obama a bloody nose in front of the world" because of health care.
Put me down as "cautiously optimistic" that START will be ratified. If the press reports are accurate, then opponents will have to argue that non-binding preamble language will somehow bind future U.S. presidents. Maybe hardcore ideologues can spin that kind of tale, but this is not health care -- fewer activists are going to care about an arms control treaty with a fading great power. Furthermore, if Obama's popularity has rebounded by the time the treaty comes up for a vote, some individual GOP senators will see a decided advantage to bipartisanship on foreign policy.
I'm still on vacation -- did anything of note happen over the weekend?
Oh, I see: "probably the biggest thing to become law in 50 years." Well, so long as no one is engaging in hyperbole.
I have nothing to say about the content of the health care bill, but I do wonder whether there will be any positive or negative foreign policy externalities. FP's Joshua Keating provided one humorous example of how the passage of the bill can reframe the Obama narrative on foreign policy in a positive way.
On the other hand, Shadow Government's Dan Blumenthal correctly points out the ways in which Obama neglected foreign policy during the run-up to the bill's passage. This is not surprising -- presidents turn their fortunes around through domestic accomplishments and revived economic growth, not foreign policy achievements -- but it's a reality that Obama needs to confront going forward.
The one thing health care passage might do for Obama is add a dollop of respect for Obama's political acumen among other world leaders. Obama just got the #1 Democratic policy concern written into law after a year of long, drawn-out negotiations, and that's not nothing. Allied leaders might be more willing to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt when dealing with long, drawn-out international negotiations.
What do you think?
For those three readers not transfixed by today's Healthcareapalooza: your humble blogger is in Washington, DC today to
talk China-watchers down off the ledge testify before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. I'll post a link to the actual testimony once it's online. UPDATE: here's a link to everyone's testimony.
As is standard in these settings, I'm pretty sure I'm the least qualified person on the expert list.
James Vreeland, international political economy (IPE) scholar extraordinaire, has started a blog -- the Vreelander. James is one of the sharpest tools in the IPE shed, so it's to the good that he's started blogging (longtime readers might remember this guest post from last year).
I, for one, would like to officially welcome my good friend to the blogosphere by questioning his political sanity.
Last week he blogged about the Dalai Lama's meeting with Obama -- a fact that displeased Vreeland to no end:
President Obama is planning to meet with the Dali Lama at the White House. This is terrible. He is the spiritual leader of Tibet, an advocate for autonomy from China, and the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile. And the visit with Obama implies a tacit US endorsement that will deeply offend the Chinese government, not to mention many of the Chinese people.
Right now we need close cooperation with China to address serious global issues ranging from the economic crisis, to the environment, and even global security.
Meeting with the Dali Lama is a major affront to Beijing and to many Chinese. They consider this an issue of national sovereignty....
China is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual country. It has to deal with some problems similar to those of the United States. The path is long, circuitous and difficult. And having the leader of a rival power meet with a head of government-in-exile doesn't help.
More importantly, we've got bigger issues to deal with regarding China. Rather than meet with the Dali Lama, Obama should be talking about Chinese currency revaluation. And he should be doing so on a daily basis. Leave China's sovereignty alone.
Oh, please. First of all, the U.S. can't "leave China's sovereignty alone," unless we're also prepared to jettison the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and fail to mention China's Internet restrictions. That's clearly not going to happen. Meeting with the Dalai Lama, in comparison to sending arms to Taiwan, seems pretty tame.
It's also pretty routine, as CSIS's Charles Freeman pointed out. He also provided some useful context:
Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have all met with the Dalai Lama. Indeed, an express refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama would not only stray from established principle but would engender a raft of criticism from Congress and human rights groups that might constrain the president’s efforts to conduct a China policy that emphasizes engagement and cooperation.
And this is the thing -- foreign policies are never crafted with a clean slate, even with a change in presidential administrations. If no president had ever met with the Dalai Lama before and then Obama bumped into him in the Map Room, that sends one signal. If every president for two decades met with the Dalai Lama and then Obama abstains from meeting him -- let's call this the Vreeland Gambit -- that sends another signal.
I understand Vreeland's concerns that Tibet will gum up the foreign economic policy works, but I also know that the signal Obama would have sent by canceling this meeting would not have been a good one.
I would interpret this is a massive exercise in (oh, the irony) kabuki politics. Obama has a meeting that leads to no real policy differences, and China gets visibly upset and the inconsequential meeting. A week from now, neither side's rhetoric on this issue will matter all that much.
As it turns out, that was the appropriate tack, because my lackluster effort to process the speech matched the Obama administration's lackluster effort to incorporate foreign policy into the speech (FP's Josh Rogin has expertly parsed the little foreign policy content there was). As predicted, there wasn't a whole hell of a lot of international relations content in the SOTU, despite Heather Hurlburt's best efforts to argue otherwise.
Politico's Laura Rozen noted "the seeming downgrading of foreign policy emphasis in the speech," and The Spectator's Alex Massie observed "Foreign policy received very little, even perfunctory, attention." [UPDATE: oooh, Jeffrey Laurenti has data]:
[Obama] devoted just 14 percent of his speech to international concerns – a far cry from George Bush, who regularly devoted half his State of the Union addresses to foreign policy and national security themes (and fully 88 percent of the infamous “axis of evil” address in 2002, which laid out the road map for war in the Middle East).
What attention was paid to foreign economic policy was desultory when it wasn't firmly wedged in Fantasyland.
In fact, let's deconstruct that entire section of the speech -- it won't take that long:
[W]e need to export more of our goods. Because the more products we make and sell to other countries, the more jobs we support right here in America. So tonight, we set a new goal: We will double our exports over the next five years, an increase that will support two million jobs in America. To help meet this goal, we're launching a National Export Initiative that will help farmers and small businesses increase their exports, and reform export controls consistent with national security.
We have to seek new markets aggressively, just as our competitors are. If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores. But realizing those benefits also means enforcing those agreements so our trading partners play by the rules. And that's why we will continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets, and why we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea, Panama, and Colombia.
Now, let's see if there's anything of substance in there:
1) "We will double our exports over the next five years..." Well, the President said this would happen, so it must be so!! I would humbly request that the president also decree that the pull of gravity be cut in half. The government has an equal chance of making that happen.
2) "we will continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets..." The key word there is "shape." I have every confidence the administration will do this, because they make this pledge in every communique they ever issue. It's a tradition now, like playing "Hail to the Chief." Play the music, pledge to work on Doha, and then go about your business.
3) "we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea, Panama, and Colombia." You mean, by ratifying the threee trade agreements that have already been signed and negotiated? Oh, you don't mean that? Well, never mind, then.
State of the Union speeches are usually about domestic priorities, and it's not surprising that this one played to type. Still, I would have liked to have seen a more robust effort to link foreign policy priorities to domestic priorities -- because the two are more linked than is commonly acknowledged.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.