I've read and blogged a bit on conspiracy theories, and the basic conclusion I've come to is that they are like weeds in a garden. Without careful tending and ample sunlight in the public sphere, they are all too easy to sprout up -- and next to impossible to eliminate once rooted in the soil.
They're really hard to eliminate if they turn out to contain a nugget of truth, however:
For more on how this particular scandal is not limited to an Internal Revenue Service field office, click here.
Nor does it address the fact that the same IRS office that inquired into Tea Party organizations also apparently investigated groups with ties to Israel:
The same Internal Revenue Service office that singled out Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny also challenged Israel-related organizations, at least one of which filed suit over the agency’s handling of its application for tax-exempt status.
The trouble for the Israel-focused groups seems to have had different origins than that experienced by conservative groups, but at times the effort seems to have been equally ham-handed.
Look, there's no easy way to say this: The U.S. government has just given intellectual cover for every paranoid group in the country to articulate why their conspiracy theory has been validated. The thing is, now everyone else must give some patina of plausibility to those beliefs, no matter how bats**t crazy they sound at first glance.
As Politico reports, the Obama administration's political levers at the IRS are near infinitesimal. That really doesn't matter, however. This is now a political problem. Unless the White House finds a way to indicate that it's taking these scandals seriously and fixing the problems, this will be the defining meme for Barack Obama's second term.
Since gun regulation failed the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, some pundits have trotted out the "failure of presidential leadership" meme. See Maureen Dowd, Ron Fournier, Dana Milbank, or Peggy Noonan for example. To most political scientists -- hell, to most people who've taken an advanced poli sci course -- this a pretty unpersuasive argument. Andrew Rudalevige, Ezra Klein, Seth Masket, Jonathan Bernstein, and Jonathan Chait have all pushed back fiercely on this question.
Now, that said, pushback on the leadership question is difficult for two reasons. First, there's a lot of the political commentariat that wants the world to operate along the Aaron Sorkin Big Speech Theory of Politics. Klein is correct to observe that "the world isn't here to please you," but it's amazing how much wishcasting can make it easy to ignore.
The second problem is that in pushing back, it is too easy for critics to be interpreted as saying that presidential leadership does not exist. So critics should point out moments or opportunities for presidential leadership to better define the boundaries of this concept.
For one example, I give you Randall Archibold and Michael Shear's story in the New York Times about Obama's Mexico trip. The title gives it away: "Obama Seeks to Banish Stereotypical Image of Mexico."
President Obama, in speech to high school and university students here, said Friday that it was time to banish the stereotypical Mexico of violence and people fleeing across borders and embrace the new image of a strengthening democracy and economy.
“I have come to Mexico because it is time to put old mind-sets aside,’’ Mr. Obama said to vigorous applause from hundreds of students at the National Anthropology Museum. “It’s time to recognize new realities, including the impressive progress in today’s Mexico. For even as Mexicans continue to make courageous sacrifices for the security of your country, even as Mexicans in the countryside and in neighborhoods not far from here struggle to give their children a better life, it’s also clear that a new Mexico is emerging.'’
Although poverty remains deep and wages have stagnated, Mr. Obama focused on the positive signs of the economy, including growth measurements that exceed those in the United States, a surge in the manufacturing and technology industries and rising levels of middle class Mexicans.
OK, this matters. As the Chicago Council on Global Affairs demonstrated in their poll this week, Americans have a dim and distorted view of Mexico. Mention that country, and the three issues that spring immediately to mind are drugs, illegal immigration, and the "giant sucking sound" of NAFTA. In point of fact, illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle and outward Mexican FDI has exploded. Mexico's new president is pretty popular, and the next head of the WTO might be Mexican as well. Most Americans know nothing contained in the last two sentences.
One thing presidents can do with their bully pulpit is try to correct public misperceptions that are detrimental to the national interest ... like U.S. views on Mexico. Let's not kid ourselves -- one visit and one speech alone won't do that. But it can start to alter public attitudes on the margins. That's a start -- and very useful example of positive presidential leadership.
Your humble blogger continues to enjoy his family vacation immensely -- especially since Phase One has ended and Phase Two does not require anything to do with the House of Mouse.
Today's topic is U.S. foreign policy in the age of Obama. Here's what's worth reading:
1) Richard Neu, "U.S. 'Soft Power' Abroad is Losing Its Punch." RAND. My take: When he writes "The most potent instrument of U.S. soft power is probably the simple size of the U.S. economy," I get the sense that Neu doesn't entirely get what "soft power" means. And the whole "U.S. debt is sapping perceptions of U.S. power" shtick sounds very 2009. Still, as a read of the conventional wisdom of American thought on this issue, it's a good precis.
2) Tom Wright, "Neocons vs. Realists is so 2008," Foreign Policy. My take: Wright accurately describes "restrainers" and "shapers" but misses the bureaucratic impuleses for different actors to adopt these positions. Secretaries of state tend to be "shapers" -- otherwise, why would they take the job? Meanwhile, Secretaries of defense tend to be "restrainers." They're leery of any non-essential engagement that would potentially require the use of force -- because that could put the military in harm's way. The principal exception to this rule during the post-Cold War era was Don Rumsfeld, and even he wanted U.S. troops to get the hell out of Iraq five minutes after Saddam's statue fell.
3) Roger Cohen, "Beltway Foreign Policy," New York Times. My take: On the one hand -- oh, does my former Fletcher colleague and now SAIS Dean Vali Nasr knows how to tease his forthcoming book. I can only hope that, should I be in a similar position, Roger Cohen should need some column filler. On the other hand, it's not a real shock to learn that the Obama White House made serious efforts to constrain Richard Holbrooke/run foreign policy. Going from there to asserting that "American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations" seems a bit of a leap. Mind you, it's still a refreshing and bracing critique that's worth reading.
Like other wonks, I watched last night's State of the Union address with a mixture of curiosity and whiskey. As I noted a few days ago, each State of the Union address contains some statements that history will judge rather harshly. Initially that was my focus in listening to last night's speech. That was quickly supplanted by a more interesting undercurrent to Obama's text, however.
Foreign policy wonks like Fred Kaplan have argued that there wasn't much foreign policy content in the speech. That's true only if one has a rather narrow definition of foreign policy. What was striking to me was Obama's global justifications for a lot of his economic policy. Throughout his speech, he used the specter of foreign economic threats to prod Congress into action. Consider the following:
Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs?....
After shedding jobs for more than 10 years, our manufacturers have added about 500,000 jobs over the past three. Caterpillar is bringing jobs back from Japan. Ford is bringing jobs back from Mexico. After locating plants in other countries like China, Intel is opening its most advanced plant right here at home. And this year, Apple will start making Macs in America again.There are things we can do, right now, to accelerate this trend....
After years of talking about it, we are finally poised to control our own energy future. We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years....
Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We’ve begun to change that. Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year – so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.....
America’s energy sector is just one part of an aging infrastructure badly in need of repair. Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and internet; high-tech schools and self-healing power grids. The CEO of Siemens America – a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina – has said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they’ll bring even more jobs....
Let’s also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job. Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job....
In each of these passages, Obama was using comparative language to contrast the United States with other countries -- or, as he would put it, other magnets for jobs. The explicit thesis is that unless the United States makes the necessary investments, scarce jobs will leave American shores.
Obama has used this kind of rhetoric on the campaign trail and in previous SOTUs. It reveals a somewhat mercantiilist worldview, one in which jobs and economic growth have a zero-sum, relative gains quality to it.
[So, what, Dan? Most Americans see the world through a mercantilist lens as well. Will this kind of rhetoric matter?--ed.] I'm honestly not sure. Here's the foreign economic policy component of the SOTU:
Even as we protect our people, we should remember that today’s world presents not only dangers, but opportunities. To boost American exports, support American jobs, and level the playing field in the growing markets of Asia, we intend to complete negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership. And tonight, I am announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union – because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.
Now on the one hand, announcing the formal start of negotiations with the EU on a trade deal augurs well for my prediction last year about foreign economic policy playing a big role in Obama's second term. On the other hand, viewing trade through a mercantilist lens will make tough negotiations even tougher ... which means I might owe Phil Levy an expensive DC dinner.
In a speech in which traditional security threats seemed very much on the wane in terms of actual threat as well as political salience, it would be a cruel twist of fate to ratchet up ill-conceived foreign economic threats as a substitute.
The New Republic has relaunched in style, featuring a spiffy new website and a sitdown interview with President Barack Obama. Alas, much of the interview was about internal GOP politics. Only the last question was about foreign policy, but Obama provided an interesting answer. In TNR owner Chris Hughes queried about how he morally copes with the ongoing violence in Syria without substantive U.S. intervention. Here's his response in full:
Every morning, I have what's called the PDB—presidential daily briefing—and our intelligence and national security teams come in here and they essentially brief me on the events of the previous day. And very rarely is there good news. And a big chunk of my day is occupied by news of war, terrorism, ethnic clashes, violence done to innocents. And what I have to constantly wrestle with is where and when can the United States intervene or act in ways that advance our national interest, advance our security, and speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity.
And as I wrestle with those decisions, I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations. In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?
Those are not simple questions. And you process them as best you can. You make the decisions you think balance all these equities, and you hope that, at the end of your presidency, you can look back and say, I made more right calls than not and that I saved lives where I could, and that America, as best it could in a difficult, dangerous world, was, net, a force for good. (emphasis added)
I hear a lot of loose talk about what Barack Obama's foreign policy is really like, but I'd argue that the bolded sections pretty much encapsulate his foreign policy preferences. For him, national interest and security trumps liberal values every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
[But that's a false dichotomy!!--ed. You've been listening to too many Jon Favreau speeches. The easy foreign policy calls are when values and interests line up. It's when they conflict that we get a better sense of what's vital and what's... less important.] Obama looks at Syria and sees a grisly situation where the status quo doesn't hurt American interests -- in fact, it's a mild net positive. Given that situation, Obama's incentive to intervene is pretty low.
Does this mean Obama is amoral or un-American? Hardly. That answer suggests two things. First. liberal values do matter to Obama -- they just don't matter as much as other things. Second, to be fair, contra academic realism, there is a set of ethical values that are attached to realpolitik, and I think they inform Obama's decision-making as well. It seems pretty clear that Obama's first foreign policy instinct after advancing the national interest is the foreign policy equivalent of the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. If you think about it, the one liberal deviation from Obama's foreign policy is the Libya intervention, where he explicitly authorized the use of force for a mission that he acknowledged was not in the core national interest. It worked, but we've seen/seeing the second-order effects in Benghazi and across Northern Africa.
I'm bemused by neoconservatives who simutaneously pillory the Obama administration for the Benghazi screw-up, yet call for greater efforts to "do something" in Syria. What happened in Benghazi, and Algeria, and Mali are the direct follow-ons from the last time the U.S. ramped up its efforts in a non-strategic situation. If anything, it seems clear that Obama has learned from that lesson -- as well as the Afghanistan "surge" -- and determined that the utility of military intervention is more limited and the costs are even greater than he imagined in 2008. Furthermore, as the Congo comment suggests, he's also conscious that if one really wants to apply liberal ethical criteria to the use of Amertican force, then Syria is not at the top of the queue.
Barack Obama neither an appeaser nor a liberal internationalist. He's someone who has a clear set of foreign policy preferences and an increasing risk aversion to the use of force as a tool of regime change. That's not unethical -- it's just based on a set of ethical principles that might be somewhat alien to America's very, very liberal foreign policy community.
Am I missing anything?
Pop quiz: which administration has been more enthusiastic about joining international treaties, George W. Bush or Barack Obama?
The Obama administration has been slow to submit new treaties to the Senate, and only nine have been approved so far. In contrast, the George W. Bush administration secured Senate approval of 163 treaties over eight years. These included not only bilateral treaties but also multilateral agreements on many important subjects, including human rights, atmospheric and marine environmental protection, the laws of war and arms control.
That paragraph comes from John Bellinger III, Bush 43's former State Department legal adviser. Now, one obvious pushback to this is that Obama has had to deal with a sovereigntist caucus in the Senate that is even more rabid than it was under Bush. Bellinger acknowledges the obvious, but then goes on to argue that fault also lies with the Obama administration:
It isn’t enough to blame Republican opposition to international agreements, which certainly has risen among the party’s senators in recent years. That trend only makes it more important that President Obama work harder to gain Senate support for treaties in his second term....
President Obama must devote more energy to securing Senate approval for pending treaties, both by using the presidency’s bully pulpit to explain the benefits and by directing administration officials to pay more attention to the concerns of individual senators. Despite increasing Republican hostility toward treaties, the president should still be able to persuade between 12 and 15 pragmatic Republican senators to support treaties that give concrete rights to Americans and American businesses or that promote important American interests.
The president should begin with the Law of the Sea Convention, which enjoys strong support from all branches of the United States military and from the American business community. He almost certainly could have gained Senate approval of this important treaty during his first three years in office but inexplicably waited until the maelstrom of the 2012 election year to push for it.
Over at the Monkey Cage, Erik Voeten looks at the political science of this and concludes that Bellinger has a valid point. The reason that Obama has been lethargic on treaties? The opportunity cost of the effort:
The idea that it is indeed hard work to pass treaties is supported by a recent working paper by Judith Kelley and Jon Pevehouse. Passing a treaty isn’t a simple matter of tallying the votes. The Senate’s agree and consent process takes away legislative time and political capital that could be used for other, perhaps more valuable, legislation. This opportunity cost theory yields some interesting and counterintuitive hypotheses. Presidents should become less likely to advance treaties when their approval ratings are high and when their party controls the Senate because that is the time when they can pass more valuable legislation on domestic issues. Kelley and Pevehouse find strong support for these patterns in their analysis with data from 1967-2008.
I suspect that Bellinger is correct that the Obama Administration could have persuaded a few Republicans to switch sides on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities if it had expended more time and capital on the treaty. This is not just about Republican opposition but also about priorities in the Obama Administration, which have, rightly or wrongly, been more on the domestic side.
One could argue that this logic also applies to Obama's cabinet selection process on foreign affairs. With Susan Rice, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, the White House strategy appears to be, "hey, let's float the name, see if anyone gets upset, and see if the nominee can push back effectively before bothering to actually nominate the person."
Now from a pure logic of politics, this strategy makes some sense on some foreign policy matters. As embarrassing as it was that the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities did not get ratified by the Senate, it doesn't change much. There is no effect on domestic law and the U.S. takes a marginal hit on the global stage. Even on cabinet appointments, one could be truly bloodless and argue that Susan Rice's Value Over Replacement-Level Policy Principal wasn't that high. The fiscal cliff negotiations matter a lot more.
Still, politics is art as well as science, and there's something just a little bit chickens**t about the Obama White House's tactics. Politics isn't only about winning -- sometimes it's just about making the effort. And the truth of the matter is that when it comes to dealing with Congress, this administration hasn't made the effort. By my recollection, during its entire first term, the only international relations piece of legislation that got the full court Obama White House press was the New START treaty with Russia. Now given what was going on with the economy, one could argue that the administration had the right set of priorities. But one way to help jumpstart the global economy would be a series of potentially significant foreign economic policy moves -- including the ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention, by the way. And I'd feel safer about my bet with Phil Levy if I knew that the Obama administration was willing to get some skin in the game when it came to foreign policy and Congress.
Letting peple like Susan Rice or Chuck Hagel twist in the political wind is, well, cruel. So I hope that in its second term, the White House cares enough about foreign policy to actually engage Congress rather than throw up their hands and say, "crazy Republicans, what can you do?" Actually, President Obama, you could do one whole hell of a lot if you made an effort.
So, after yesterday, there appears to be a little more clarity about who's gonna be doing what on Barack Obama's second term foreign policy team. If the latest reports can be trusted:
1) Susan Rice took herself out of the running for Secretary of State, but it looks like she'll be staying on as U.N. Ambassador, with a potential move to National Security Advisor at some point in the second term.
2) John Kerry is now the frontrunner to be Secretary of State
3) Chuck Hagel is now the frontrunner to be Secretary of Defense
4) Tom Donilon is staying on as National Security Advisor
5) CIA will go to either acting ditector Michael Morrell or deputy NSC advisor John Brennan.
My thoughts on these developments:
A) As someone with very little inside-the-Beltway knowledge, the Susan Rice denouement still raises more questions than it answers. In particular: i) Why was Benghazi such a big deal when she had zero operational authority and in no way lied when she appeared on the Sunday talk shows in September; ii) What the hell did she do to alienate Susan Collins (which appears to have been the pivotal moment)? iii) Why didn't the Obama White House offer up a full-throated defense of Rice or tell her to shut the hell up? Why the squishy, tepid support? iv) What was it about Rice that prompted so much bipartisan backbiting?
B) The changing norms of the Senate suggest the disturbing possibility that the only cabinet nominees who can sail through are.... former Senators. This is bad, bad, bad, bad, and bad for foreign policy. Cabinet officers are administrators and managers. Most senators haven't managed anything bigger than a legislative office. This isn't to say that all of them will do a bad job... but cofidence is not high. Narrowing the candidate pool like this harms the national interest.
C) If Chuck Hagel gets the nomination, it's gonna be one hell of a test of the Israel Lobby thesis. Eli Lake and Stephen Walt don't agree on much, but they do agree that Hagel is not really viewed as a friend of Israel... or at least Israeli uber-hawks. Hagel's overall foreign policy expertise/competence isn't a question, and as a former GOP senator it's going to be tough to make this a partisan issue. So... this is really an ideal test of the power of the so-called Israel Lobby. If AIPAC et al either don't oppose the nomination or oppose it and lose, that's a data point against Walt and Mearsheimer. If they oppose it and Hagel is withdrawn/goes down, it would be tough to deny that the power of AIPAC wasn't the crucial factor. As a social scientist, let me just say... pass the popcorn.
D) Actually, come to think of it, there is one other group that would likely oppose a Hagel nomination. Democratic policy defense wonks won't be thrilled with Hagel -- because it means one of their own won't get the job. If Hagel gets the nomination, then three of the last four Secretaries of Defense under a Democratic administration will have been Republicans. At a time when Democrats are acquiring a foreign policy/national security advantage over the GOP, this is not the best signal of party competency on defense matters. That said, a Hagel nomination would also be evidence that the GOP has pretty much shed all of the realists from its foreign policy team.
E) Hey, remember when the Secretary of the Treasury and the U.S. Trade Representative were significant foreign policy positions? Good times. Foreign economic policy got the short end of the foreign policy stick during Obama's first term -- it would be peachy if that changed. Wouldn't it be awesome if these positions got some nominees with political juice and the ability to move an ambitious foreign economic policy agenda through the system?
What do you think?
Earlier this week Shadow Government's Phil Levy threw some cold water on my pre-election optimism that foreign economic policy would take the lead in 2013, attributing it to my being in Paris when I wrote it. Phil has a lot more hands-on experience in these matters than I do, so it's worth reading his post in full. To sum up here, however:
If, on a 10-point scale, the first term free trade challenges were a 'degree of difficulty' 2, then this term's challenges are an 8 or a 9.... it may be useful to distinguish between President Obama's political cost/benefit of negotiating a trade agreement and of concluding one....
Trade agreements take time. If the president is to get anything completed, he needs to start right away.
How to respond? Well, first, I have a confession -- I did have a lovely time in Paris.
That said, now that I'm back in the austere bleakness that is November in New England, I'll stand by my prediction. This is for a few reasons. First, to push back on Phil a bit, I wouldn't characterize Obama's free trade challenges in the first term so easily. As someone who was pretty critical of the president on trade matters, I would nevertheless acknowledge that he was facing gale-force winds on this topic during his first term. In retrospect, if I had told Phil that the global economy would face the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and yet the United States would not resort to rank protectionism, I think he'd be moderately pleased. Now, this wasn't entirely due to Obama, but still, I think he could have made things a lot worse... but didn't.
To be fair, I think Phil's point was intended to be a bit narrower -- namely, that it was easy for Obama to push ratification of Budh-negotiated FTAs but hard to negotiate his own. But surely, one of the reasons that Democrats were not particularly keen on those FTAs is because Bush negotiated them, yes? If a Democratic president claims ownership of an FTA, I'd bet he's gonna get more party support in Congress. Also, a side note: I'm dubious that traditional Democratic Party objections would block either the TPP or a Europe deal.
Finally, in his post, Phil actually lays out the logic of why I think these deals will go forward:
The problem is that U.S. trading partners will not be infinitely patient in awaiting the conclusion of the deals under discussion. From a broader foreign policy perspective, the TPP is absolutely central to the administration's pivot to Asia. Europeans are eagerly backing the idea of an FTA as one of the few positive signals they might send to investors amidst the still-looming euro zone crisis. There will be serious foreign policy consequences if the president fools us thrice on support for trade.
Phil is right -- and it's precisely this reason that makes me think that Obama will make more forwrd progress on this in his second term. For most of the postwar era, the United States could act as a veto player. If it didn't get what it wanted in the GATT/WTO or some regional agreement, well, progress was halted. One way the world has changed is that even if the United States calls a time-out, the rest of the world won't. That kind of logic can compel even reluctant traders into agreeing to deals once they recognize that the status quo is even worse -- a logic that Lloyd Gruber spelled out in his excellent, underrated book Ruling the World.
Now I'm not quite Nate Silver-like in my confidence about the next term, but I do hereby offer a challenge to Phil: I'm willing to bet that at least two out of the following four things will happen during Obama's second term:
1) A Trans-Pacific Partnership that is ratified by Congress;
2) Bilateral investment treaties with India and China;
3) A transatlantic integration agreement;
4) A new services deal within the auspices of the WTO.
If Obama comes up short, I hereby offer to treat Phil to an expensive dinner at a DC restaurant of his choosing, because clearly Washington remains dysfunctional. If I'm right, however, Phil has to buy me dinner in New York, that most globalized of American cities.
So I woke up this morning to see that Barack Obama was re-elected with numbers that looked an awful lot like what Nate Silver et al said they would be. So, what does this mean? A few things:
1) Hopefully, political science will start to bleed into political coverage in the media in the same way that sabermetrics has successfully been grafted onto baseball coverage. This would be a very, very, very good thing. Seriously, it would be awesome if the Sunday morning talk shows actually started incorporating some political scientists into their roundtables as a matter of course.
2) A glance at the exit polls showed that Obama won the foreign policy question pretty handily. Only five percent of respondents thought that foreign policy was the most critical issue in this campaign -- but of those five percent, voters went for Obama over Romney by 56% to 33%. Voters were also more likely to trust Barack Obama in an international crisis (57%-42%) than Mitt Romney (50%-46%).
This is the first exit poll in at least three decades where the Democrat has outperformed the Republican on foreign policy and national security. And I guarantee that whoever runs from the GOP side in 2016 will not have a ton of foreign policy experience. The GOP has managed to squander an advantage in perceived foreign policy competency that it had owned for decades. This -- combined with shifts on social issues and demographics -- will be a problem that the Republicans are going to need to address.
3) It was interesting that Obama mentioned climate change in his acceptance speech.
4) Second-term presidents tend to pay more attention to foreign affairs, particularly as their lame duck status kicks in. Obama will be no different. Once the fiscal cliff issues are addressed, I predict that foreign economic policy will take the lead.
Your humble blogger has not been shy in stating that he now votes in presidential elections based largely on foreign policy considerations. Nor has he been shy in expressing his... er... exasperation with various foreign policy kerfuffles during the campaign. So as Election Day approaches, you might wonder -- what will Daniel Drezner do? [Oh, give me a f**ing break, just get on with it!!--ed.]
With Barack Obama, there's an actual record to judge.... and I think it would be best to call it mixed. The Economist, in its Obama endorsement, noted the following:
[On] foreign policy... he was also left with a daunting inheritance. Mr Obama has refocused George Bush’s “war on terror” more squarely on terrorists, killing Osama bin Laden, stepping up drone strikes (perhaps too liberally, see article) and retreating from Iraq and Afghanistan (in both cases too quickly for our taste). After a shaky start with China, American diplomacy has made a necessary “pivot” towards Asia. By contrast, with both the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and his “reset” with Russia, he overreached and underdelivered. Iran has continued its worrying crawl towards nuclear weapons.
All these problems could have been anticipated. The Arab spring could not. Here Mr Obama can point to the ousting of tyrants in Egypt and Libya, but he has followed events rather than shaping them, nowhere more so than with the current carnage in Syria. Compared with, say, George Bush senior, who handled the end of the cold war, this aloof, disengaged man is no master diplomat; set beside the younger Bush, however, Mr Obama has been a safe pair of hands.
I think that's a decent assessment, although it overlooks what is, to me, the most troubling element of Barack Obama's first-term foreign policy legacy -- his management of the foreign policy process. As my Foreign Policy colleague Rosa Brooks has written about in agonizing detail, the dysfunction that was talked about in Obama's first year in office hasn't disappeared along with Osama bin Laden.
Indeed, the aftermath of Benghazi puts this on full display. To be blunt, for all the GOP efforts to make the lack of pre-attack planning an indictment of the White House, consulate security in Benghazi is not the kind of decision that rises to the White House level. The aftermath of the attack is another story, however. In the past 24 hours alone, report after report after report after report shows Obama's foreign policy agencies defending their own turf, leaking to reporters in ways that heighten bureaucratic dysfunction, and revealing the White House's national security team to be vindictive and petty.
Benghazi also highlights a deeper problem with this administration -- the lack of policy follow-through. Whether one looks at the Iraq withdrawal or the rebalancing to Asia or the Afghanistan build-up or their embrace of the G-20, the story is the same. Even if the administration had demonstrated good first instincts, it has failed to follow up those instincts with either next steps or contingency planning.
So, the biggest indictment of the Obama administraion's foreign policy has been poor management. Which, as it turns out, is Mitt Romney's genuine strength, as Ezra Klein points out in his excellent Bloomberg column this AM:
Romney’s apparent disinterest in an animating ideology has made him hard to pin down -- for the Journal editorial board, for journalists, for Democrats and Republicans, for campaign consultants, even for Romney’s closest confidantes. It has led to the common knock on Romney that he lacks a core. He’s an opportunist. He picks whatever position is expedient. He is a guy with brains, but no guts.
But after spending the last year talking to Romney advisers and former colleagues, as well as listening to him on the campaign trail, I’ve come to see this description as insufficient. It’s not so much that Romney lacks a core as that his core can’t readily be mapped by traditional political instruments. As a result, he is free to be opportunistic about the kinds of commitments that people with strong political cores tend to value most.
What Romney values most is something most of us don’t think much about: management. A lifetime of data has proven to him that he’s extraordinarily, even uniquely, good at managing and leading organizations, projects and people. It’s those skills, rather than specific policy ideas, that he sees as his unique contribution. That has been the case everywhere else he has worked, and he assumes it will be the case in the White House, too.
This jibes with all the chatter I hear about Romney as well. Which should lead you to think that Romney might be exactly what ails American foreign policy.
The thing is, Romney's own foreign policy rhetoric makes it clear that managing foreign policy isn't enough. As he's said, the president has to be a foreign policy leader. A president has much greater leeway on these issues than on other policy dimensions. A good foreign policy president needs to be genunely interested in the subject, possess good foreign policy insincts, and rely on a core set of ideas that allows him or her to make tough decisions in a world of uncertainty. As I wrote last year:
[A] 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.
When I use these criteria to think about Mitt Romney, he doesn't do very well. Every conversation with every Romney advisor confirms the same thing: this is not a guy who has engaged deeply in international affairs. He was perfectly happy to go all neocon-y in the primary season to appeal to his base, and then tack back to the center in the general election to appeal to war-weary independents. He's not doing this because he's dishonest; he's doing this because he doesn't care. His choice of foreign policy neophyte Paul Ryan as his VP pick confirms this as well: Romney/Ryan has the least foreign policy experience of any GOP ticket in at least sixty years.
Furthermore, in the moments during this campaign when Romney has been required to display his foreign policy instincts, he's foundered badly. He stuck his beak into the Chen Guangcheng case when silence was the better option. He did the same thing in the aftermath of the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, going so far as to accuse Obama of "sympathizing" with terrorists. As for his overseas trip, well, the less said, the better. All of these episodes show a guy who's out of his depth on matters of foreign affairs. And when he's been criticized in taking these stances, Romney has responded by doubling down on a bad position. His political instincts have led him to some bad foreign policy choices.
I'm not nearly as enthusiastic about as Obama as, say, Jonathan Chait, but his endorsement of the president makes an interesting point:
It is noteworthy that... the best decisions that Obama made during his presidency ran against the advice of much of his own administration.... Many of his own advisers, both economists steeped in free-market models and advisers anxious about a bailout-weary public, argued against his decision to extend credit to, and restructure, the auto industry. On Libya, Obama’s staff presented him with options either to posture ineffectually or do nothing; he alone forced them to draw up an option that would prevent a massacre. And Obama overruled some cautious advisers and decided to kill Osama bin Laden.
On foreign policy, Barack Obama might be an indifferent manager, but by making his first decision the right one, he has saved himself numerous embarrassments and reversals.
This was a closer call than I expected, and I honestly hope (and think there's a good chance) that if Mitt Romney is elected, he'd grow into his foreign policy role with time. For this analyst, however, Barack Obama is the imperfect, but superior, alternative.
And now the bitter political invective in the comments.... begin!!
Let's face it, we are at the stage in the U.S. presidential race when politics junkies like myself are feasting on the tiniest scraps of relevant information about the campaign. And, because I live next door to the swing state of New Hampshire, I'm getting bombarded with negative advertisements up the wazoo.
I bring this up because of the latest BBC poll:
A BBC World Service opinion poll has found sharply higher overseas approval ratings for US President Barack Obama than Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
An average of 50% favoured Mr Obama, with 9% for Mr Romney, in the survey of 21,797 people in 21 countries.
Here are the charts:
Now let's be honest -- this doesn't matter all that much from a foreign policy perspective. Obama scored similar numbers in 2008, and yet the signal lesson of his first year in office is that a president's personal popularity can't be leveraged into tangible concessions at the global stage.
Instead, all I see when I read these numbers are the negative taglines that could be played:
"Can we really trust a president who is super-popular in France? Of course not -- vote for Romney."
The country of Pakistan is a breeding ground for radical Islamic terrorists who want to destroy the United States -- and Pakistanis want Mitt Romney to be president. The choice is clear: vote for Barack Obama."
Readers are warmly encouraged to offer their own ways to twist this data into a negative ad.
Your humble blogg -- [Wait, screw that, you should be feeling pretty proud today!! -- ed.]
Your proud blogger will be watching tonight's foreign policy debate despite his near-certainty that it's not going to be all that illuminating or informative. He has no choice, as he has a prior commitment to watch the damn thing.
Now, in preparation for the debate, I could encourage you to read some excellent preparatory posts by Walter Russell Mead or Spencer Ackerman, or this essay on American incolvency in grand strategy by Michael Mazarr -- but that's no fun.
I could suggest following one of the foreign policy debate drinking games out there -- see the National Journal or Duck of Minerva, for example -- but these drinking games look exceptionally dangerous. Drink when Obama mentions bin Laden? Really? Or when Romney says "resolve"? No one would be upright after the first twenty minutes.
No, I think the only responsible thing to do is to suggest my own debate drinking game. The idea here is to sort the possible answer such that a true "black swan" event would have to occur for the participant to risk alcohol poisoning.
So, in that spirit:
THE OFFICIAL 2012 FOREIGN POLICY DEBATE DRINKING GAME
Take a sip of your drink if....
1. Either candidate makes a geographical mistake (like insisting that the West Bank borders Syria or something like that).
2. Obama says "I'm the commander in chief."
3. Romney says that the U.S. Navy is the smallest it's been since 1916 (a dubious claim).
4. Romney accuses Obama of turning the United States into Greece.
5. Anyone on the stage (including Bob Schieffer) mentions Australia, New Zealand or Canada.
Finish your drink if....
1. Either candidate mentions the benefits of trade with China.
2. Either candidate says that Latin America is a crucial strategic region for the United States.
3. Obama says that there's some wiggle room in the 2014 withdrawal date for U.S. combat forces for Afghanistan.
4. Romney says that that there's no wiggle room in the 2014 withdrawal date for U.S. combat forces for Afghanistan.
5. Anyone onstage acknowledges that China has pretty much stopped intervening to keep its currency undervalued.
Finish your bottle if....
1. Romney says anything positive about the United Nations.
2. Either candidate says that the United States needs to push hard for democratization in Saudi Arabia.
3. Either "Africa" or "Doha round" are mentioned.
4. Either candidate blasts Israel for keeping its currency severely undervalued.
5. Obama accuses Romney of a "speak loudly and carry a magic wand" doctrine.
DRINK YOURSELF TO OBLIVION IF AND ONLY IF....
1. Bob Schieffer asks the candidates what they would do in case of zombies.
Now I'm pretty sure that if you follow these rules, you'll enjoy tonight's debate without regretting that enjoyment tomorrow.
Your humble blogger enjoyed his time in Mexico City. He particularly enjoyed last night's dinner, at which the most delicious margaritas he had ever consumed were served. It is possible that he should not have enjoyed that last of his many margaritas, however, because he is now extremely cranky and waiting to board his flight back to the United States.
I bring up the crankiness because it's possible I'm overreeacting to the announcded format and topics for Monday night's foreign policy debate. Politico's Mike Allen -- via Dylan Byers -- relays the following:
[H]ere are the topics for the October 22 debate, not necessarily to be brought up in this order:
* America’s role in the world
* Our longest war – Afghanistan and Pakistan
* Red Lines – Israel and Iran
* The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – I
* The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – II
* The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World...
The format calls for six 15-minute time segments, each of which will focus on one of the topics listed above. The moderator will open each segment with a question. Each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Following the candidates’ responses, the moderator will use the balance of the 15-minute segment to facilitate a discussion on the topic.
So two-thirds of the debate will be about the Greater Middle East. Two-thirds. Schieffer has generously allowed that China and
Tomorrowland the entire Pacific Rim should get fifteen minutes. Here are the following areas and topics that apparently won't be discussed:
1) The eurozone crisis
2) Latin America
5) Foreign economic policy
7) North Korea
Now I get that some of these topics won't come up in a foreign policy debate that lasts only 90 minutes. But I'm also thinking that maybe, just maybe, it would be a better foreign policy debate if they actually talked about, you know, SOMETHING OTHER THAN THE MIDDLE EAST!!!!!!
I'm not saying the Middle East isn't important -- we have lost blood and treasure there, some of it very recently. But I simply do not believe that the region is so important that it should occupy 66.7% of a foreign policy debate.
That could just be the hangover talking. But I seriously doubt it.
Am I mising anything? No, scratch that -- what else is Schieffer missing in his misbegotten list of foreign policy topics?
I've had my fair share of disagreements with Danielle Pletka in the past, but I liked her well-crafted New York Times op-ed on what Romney needs to say today on foreign policy a great deal. In particular:
For an American public fixated on the economy, another Romney valedictory on the advantages of not being Barack Obama will be a waste of time. Americans feel more comfortable when they have a sense of the candidate’s vision, because it gives them a clearer road map for the future....
Criticisms of Mr. Obama’s national security policies have degenerated into a set of clichés about apologies, Israel, Iran and military spending. To be sure, there is more than a germ of truth in many of these accusations. But these are complaints, not alternatives. Worse yet, they betray the same robotic antipathy that animated Bush-haters. “I will not apologize for America” is no more a clarion call than “let’s nation-build at home.”
Mr. Romney must put flesh on the bones of his calls for a renewed American greatness. With a vision for American power, strategically and judiciously applied, we can continue to do great things with fewer resources. The nation’s greatest strength is not its military power or fantastic productivity. It’s the American commitment to our founding principles of political and economic freedom. If Mr. Romney can outline to voters how he will use American power to advance those principles, he will go a long way in persuading them he deserves the job of commander in chief.
This gets to the nub of Mitt Romney's foreign policy problem. If one pushes past the overheated rhetoric, then you discover that Romney wants a lot of the same ends as Barack Obama -- a stable, peaceful and free Middle East, for example. But that's not shocking -- any major party president will want the same ends. The differenes are in the means through which a president will achieve those ends. And -- in op-ed after op-ed, in speech after speech -- Romney either elides the means altogether, mentions means that the Obama administration is already using, or just says the word "resolve" a lot. That's insufficient.
Unfortunately, the pre-speech indicators suggest that Team Romney is ignoring Pletka's advice. Ineeed, if CNN's excerpts of Romney's big foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute today are any indication, there's almost no new policy content in this speech.
I'll check back in after the speech, but David Sanger's NYT front-pager today about how the Romney team is managing the foreign policy side of things is pretty dispiriting:
[W]hile the theme Mr. Romney plans to hit the hardest in his speech at V.M.I. — that the Obama era has been one marked by “weakness” and the abandonment of allies — has political appeal, the specific descriptions of what Mr. Romney would do, on issues like drawing red lines for Iran’s nuclear program and threatening to cut off military aid to difficult allies like Pakistan or Egypt if they veer away from American interests, sound at times quite close to Mr. Obama’s approach....
And the speech appears to glide past positions Mr. Romney himself took more than a year ago, when he voiced opposition to expanding the intervention in Libya to hunt down Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi with what he termed insufficient resources. He called it “mission creep and mission muddle,” though within months Mr. Qaddafi was gone. And last spring, Mr. Romney was caught on tape telling donors he believed there was “just no way” a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could work.
Mr. Romney’s Monday speech calls vaguely for support of Libya’s “efforts to forge a lasting government” and to pursue the “terrorists who attacked our consulate in Benghazi and killed Americans.” And he said he would “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security” with Israel. But he does not say what resources he would devote to those tasks.
The shifts, a half dozen of Mr. Romney’s advisers said in interviews, partly reflect the fact that the candidate himself has not deeply engaged in these issues for most of the campaign, certainly not with the enthusiasm, and instincts, he has on domestic economic issues. But they also represent continuing divisions.
Two of Mr. Romney’s advisers said he did not seem to have the strong instincts that he has on economic issues; he resonates best, one said, to the concept of “projecting strength” and “restoring global economic growth.” But he has appeared unconcerned about the widely differing views within his own campaign about whether spreading American-style freedoms in the Middle East or simply managing, and limiting, the rise of Islamist governments should be a major goal.
Simply put, if Mitt Romney can't demonstrate leadership and resolve in commanding the foreign policy camps that are participating in his campaign, I'm somewhat dubious that he can do the same with either Russia or China.
Am I missing anything?
The conventional wisdom was that Mitt Romney thrashed Barack Obama last night, and I'm part of that conventional wisdom today. In essence, Obama's biggest problem was that he perfectly portrayed Romney's version of Obama -- nice guy, but overmatched by the circumstances. I mean, not as overmatched as Jim Lehrer, but still...
By design, foreign policy did not get mentioned all that much during this debate -- though Spaniards might differ. There was Mitt Romney's riff about not wanting to borrow from China, which was pretty stupid. There was Barack Obama's discussion of sending jobs overseas, which was really stupid. I'm unfortunately used to this level of IPE stupidity in presidential debates, so let's just skip over that unpleasantness. Also, regretfully, both candidates agree with these sentiments, so depressingly there's nothing to debate about.
Still, looking at the transcript, there was one teaser of disagreements to come that seems pretty big to me -- the difference between the two major party candidates on defense spending. It's not quite as good as other teaser trailers -- but it is interesting.
Here was Obama on Romney's five-point plan, a point that he made repeatedly:
I would just say this to the American people. If you believe that we can cut taxes by $5 trillion and add $2 trillion in additional spending that the military is not asking for, $7 trillion -- just to give you a sense, over 10 years, that’s more than our entire defense budget -- and you think that by closing loopholes and deductions for the well-to-do, somehow you will not end up picking up the tab, then Governor Romney’s plan may work for you....
I think it’s important for us to develop new sources of energy here in America, that we change our tax code to make sure that we’re helping small businesses and companies that are investing here in the United States, that we take some of the money that we’re saving as we wind down two wars to rebuild America and that we reduce our deficit in a balanced way that allows us to make these critical investments (emphasis added).
Now, here's Romney on the same question:
We have a responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of our people, and that means a military second to none. I do not believe in cutting our military. I believe in maintaining the strength of America’s military....
The president’s reelected you’ll see dramatic cuts to our military. The secretary of defense has said these would be even devastating.
I will not cut our commitment to our military. I will keep America strong.
Now there was zero discussion of what President Obama thinks the right amount of military spending should be -- but it seems clear that it's much smaller than what Romney wants.
I hope this question comes up in the next two debates, because it really is a significant difference between the two candidates.
Another day, another bad foreign policy headline for Barack Obama:
With the surge of American troops over and the Taliban still a potent threat, American generals and civilian officials acknowledge that they have all but written off what was once one of the cornerstones of their strategy to end the war here: battering the Taliban into a peace deal.
This comes on the heels of the kerfuffle over the administration's public explanations for the Benghazi consulate attack. When Jon Stewart starts to lampoon the administration on the issue, it's definitely a body blow for the Democrats.
Now, I'm on record as being very skeptical about this gambit -- but I could easily be wrong. As Dave Weigel shrewdly observed a week or so ago, the foreign policy polling showed that Obama's star had dimmed on this issue compared to six months ago. Having embassies and consulates attacked will do that. Indeed, for the first time in this election cycle, a poll came out showing that voters believe Romney would be tougher on terrorism than Obama.
So was I wrong? Not really. On the one hand, I'm actually glad that the president's foreign policy numbers are going down. This means that votrers are actually, you know, paying attention to foreign policy. I'm on record as wanting that to happen. And Obama's numbers should go down when bad things seem to be happening to the United States in the world. The combination of the ongoing loss of life in Syria, the embassy attacks, and bad Afghan strategy highlights the fact that killing Osama bin Laden is not a grand strategy.
But there are two counterpoints to this, one on politics and one on policy. On the politics, it's worth noting that Romney pivoted to foreign policy at a time when his poll numbers have pivoted in a southward direction. So even if Romney is doing comparatively better on terrorism issues, it's not an issue that voters care all that much about.
Second, I suspect that the narrowing of the gap between Romney and Obama is temporary. The reason goes back to this parable:
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."
If voters make their choice on foreign policy as if it was a referendum on the Obama adminisration, then recvent events would represent a problem for them. But as with domestic policy, I suspect that they do a compare-and-contrast. And here Romney has some issues. He badly botched his initial response to the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi. Politico's story on his campaign wanting to go back to Libya suggests a lack of consensus on exactly how to attack the administration.
This lack of consensus shows up in Romney's latest foreign policy op-ed, which ran in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. There's an extended critique of the Obama administration's approach to the Middle East. That's fine if this was a referendum -- but if it's a choice, then what would Romney do differently? The relevant paragraphs:
In this period of uncertainty, we need to apply a coherent strategy of supporting our partners in the Middle East—that is, both governments and individuals who share our values.
This means restoring our credibility with Iran. When we say an Iranian nuclear-weapons capability—and the regional instability that comes with it—is unacceptable, the ayatollahs must be made to believe us.
It means placing no daylight between the United States and Israel. And it means using the full spectrum of our soft power to encourage liberty and opportunity for those who have for too long known only corruption and oppression. The dignity of work and the ability to steer the course of their lives are the best alternatives to extremism.
But this Middle East policy will be undermined unless we restore the three sinews of our influence: our economic strength, our military strength and the strength of our values. That will require a very different set of policies from those President Obama is pursuing.
You know what's funny about Romney's proposed foreign policy? It's exactly the same as what the Obama administration is doing right now. Clearly the administration is trying to use its economic power to win some friends in Egypt and hurt some enemies in Iran, for example. Hell, even Jennifer Rubin labelled the op-ed as "boring pablum." Romney doesn't offer a different strategy -- hell, he doesn't really offer up any strategy at all in the op-ed, just a lot of boilerplate rhetoric.
Now boilerplate rhetoric might have actually been enough in previous elections, when the GOP had a brand of foreign policy competency. Romney could simply articulate the message that, "Barack Obama and I both want to advance our interests in the world. He's bungled his chance -- I won't." But not enough voters are going to buy that sales pitch, not after Iraq. And since Romney can't hit Obama as being too hawkish, his only choice is going to be to try to out-hawk Obama. And the American people ain't in the mood for that either.
Barack Obama's foreign policy record is full of blemishes, but it doesn't contain the one thing that would give Mitt Romney an edge on this issue -- a truly catastrophic decision that cost ample amounts of blood and treasure. Without that, Romney would have to be note-perfect on foreign affairs to gain an edge -- and he's been anything but.
In 2012, I've begun to notice that there have been certain instances where events move so rapidly that my blogging about them is futile -- even in the time it takes for me to cogitate and craft a blog post, the situation on the ground changes. This happened with the Chen Guangcheng case, and it happened this week with the rash of protests and violent stormings of U.S. facilities in the Greater Middle East. Now it's certainly possible that I'm losing my fastball, but I think it might be that there are moments when taking a deep breath and stepping back are useful exercises before rendering judgment and analysis.
[Uh, it's been a few days now, so you ready for some judgment and analysis?--ed. Yep. Let's blog this mother!]
The more I think about it, the more bemused I've been by calls for Mitt Romney to give a major speech on foreign policy. Right now, it's the president who needs to deliver a major address. Americans are rightly confused by what the United States is doing in the Middle East, and President Obama had a pretty uneven week. On the one hand, there appears to have been some adroit behind-the-scenes diplomacy on Egypt. On the other hand, there are crisis moments when patience begins to look too much like passivity, and that's beginning to happen to this administration. Sure, there have been times in the past when U.S. embassies and consulates around the world faced even greater threats -- but things still seem pretty uncertain, U.S. lives have been lost, and the only thing that can be said for Barack Obama's leadership this week is that he's not Mitt Romney. Oh, and that the administration's argument that this has been caused by a single stupid Youtube clip is utter horses**t.
The American public is already predisposed towards getting the hell out of the Middle East. Seeing images of consulates burning down, caskets coming home draped in American flags, and Middle East leaders reacting slowly and tepidly to the threat of street mobs will only reinforce this predisposition. Most Americans, facing these images after two long and draining wars in the region, will likely want to reduce the U.S. profile in the Middle East even more.
That would be a mistake, for numerous reasons -- not the least of which is that the U.S. eventually does benefit if these countries manage to transition to genuine electoral democracies. It's telling that in Egypt and Libya it was the losers at the ballot box who created trouble in the streets. A reduction of the U.S. presence in these countries does not necessarily send the best of signals -- just as encouraging the use of deadly force in retaliation wouldn't either.
This strikes me as exactly the kind of "teachable moment" that President Obama used to love. So if I were a foreign policy advisor to president Obama, I'd advise him to deliver a natonally televised speech to the country in which he addressed the following:
1) What measures were being taken to protect U.S. lives at our consulates and embassies across the world;
2) What he thinks the origins of the current conflagrations have been (hint: saying it's a YouTube clip would be a radically incomplete and dishonest answer);
3) Why the United States needs to maintain an active diplomatic, security and commercial presence in the region;
4) What the United States government needs to start doing differently in order to best advance our interests in the region.
Now, obviously, this speech would have to be crafted with an eye towards the region as well -- which is both the beauty and the challenge of it.
Moreover, if I were one of Obama's political advisors, I would sternly warn him against doing this, because the downside risks would be massive. Americans don't care much about foreign policy, and this speech could seem like a distraction from the domestic policy debates of the presidential campaign. Such a speech would have to acknowledge his own administration's foibles and fumbles in the region. The address could easily act as a focal point to trigger another wave of violence and instability.
That said, the U.S. really is stuck in the Middle East -- better to be stuck with full information than with muddling through. Or, at least, full information that we're muddling through.
One of the most frustrating things about Mitt Romney's blunders this week is that they took the pressure off of the Obama administration. When the challenger has set this low of a bar, it's not hard for the administration to claim that they're the adults in the room. Well, it's not enough just to be the adults -- they're the ones in charge, and they're the ones that need to make the case for patience, for persistence, and for diplomatic engagement. Get cracking.
When we last left off, your humble blogger was speculating on the ways in which foreign policy had cost Mitt Romney during the campaign. In this post I want to expand on that theme -- with an assist from the just-released-this-very-minute-from-embargo 2012 Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy.
To set the table:
1) Despite the expectations of some Republicans, the traditional economic variables that affect a presidential campaign aren't tilting the needle towards Mitt Romney. As the New York Times' Jeff Sommer reports:
For a year in which a truly dismal economy sealed the electoral fate of an incumbent president, [Ray Fair] says, look at 1980, when President Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. In the nine months leading up to that election, per capita gross domestic product actually declined at an average annual rate of 3.7 percent, while inflation increased at an annual rate of 7.9 percent.
Professor Fair estimates that the comparable numbers for President Obama are G.D.P. growth of 1.62 percent and inflation of 1.51 percent. The low inflation rate is a plus for the president, while the mediocre G.D.P. growth rate is a problem — though not a fatal one.
“You can quite properly call this economy ‘weak,’ ” he said, “but it’s nothing like what Carter faced.” Mr. Reagan’s overwhelming victory “fit the economic picture perfectly,” he said. “This is a different situation.”
He added: “If the economy were significantly weaker or significantly stronger — if we were in a recession or if economic growth were really dramatically better — we’d have a much clearer picture of who would win the election. But the economy remains in a range of mediocre growth. It puts us in the margin-of-error range.”....
Professor Fair will compute a fresh prediction based on data available in late October, but at this stage the political probabilities aren’t likely to shift very much, he says. “It looks as though this will be a horse race, a very close one,” he says.
If it's a horse race, then one of the horses has pulled into an ever-so-slight lead. Both FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver and Politico's Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen note that the conventions have given a small but crucial advantage to the incumbent. VandeHei and Allen talked to both campaigns, and here is the best hope for the Romney camp:
[W]hen you dig into the small slice of undecided voters (probably only 6 percent to 8 percent of the electorate, according to the campaigns), the demographics are not favorable to Obama: mostly white, many with some college education, economically stressed, largely middle-aged.
Obama officials have maintained for several weeks that there are too few undecided voters for Romney to get the bounce he needs from the debates. “Romney is not going to win undecided voters 4-to-1,” a senior administration official told reporters on Air Force One on Friday. “If you are losing in Ohio by 4 or 5 points and trailing in Colorado by 2 points, if you are trailing in Nevada by 2 or 3 points, you are not going to win in those states."
So, for Romney to win, he's going to have to run the table with the tiny sliver of undecided independents.
And here is where foreign policy becomes a real problem for Mitt Romney -- because if the Chicago Council results are accurate, independents basically want the exact opposite of what Mitt Romney is selling them.
Let's stipulate that a President Romney might not actually do what he's promising during the campaign -- certainly the smart money doesn't believe him. Still, based on his rhetoric to date, let's also stipulate that Romney really wants America to lead the world. He wants to boost defense spending rather than cut it. He certainly wants to give the appearance that he would pursue a more hawkish policy towards Iran, Syria, Russia, North Korea, China and illegal immigrants than Barack Obama.
That's great -- except it turns out most of America -- and independents in particular -- want pretty much the opposite of that. Indeed, as Marshall Bouton says in the Foreword to the report:
Over time, Independents have become more inclined than either Republicans or Democrats to limit U.S. engagement in world affairs. Because Independents are an increasing share of the electorate, this development in American public opinion warrants attention.
If you read the whole report, what's striking is how much the majority view on foreign policy jibes with what the Obama administration has been doing in the world: military retrenchment from the Greater Middle East, a reliance on diplomacy and sanctions to deal with rogue states, a refocusing on East Asia, and prudent cuts in defense spending.
As for Romney, here are some excerpts from the report that suggest where the entire country -- and independents in particular -- are drifting away from his foreign policy rhetoric:
This survey demonstrates a strong desire to move on from a decade of war, to scale back spending, and avoid major new military entanglements. The lesson many Americans took away from the Iraq war—that nations should be more cautious about using military force to deal with rogue nations—appears to be taking hold more broadly (p. 13)....
Along with the lessons learned from a decade of war and a reduced sense of threat, Americans are also keenly aware of constraints on U.S. economic resources. When asked whether the defense budget should be cut along with other programs in the effort to address the federal budget deficit, 68 percent of Americans say the defense budget should be cut. This is up 10 points from 58 percent in 2010 (p. 15)....
The most preferred approach to ending [the Iranian nuclear] threat, endorsed by 80 percent, is the one that the UN Security Council is pursuing: imposing tighter economic sanctions on Iran. Essentially the same number (79%) approve of continuing diplomatic efforts to get Iran to stop enriching uranium. Consistent with this strong support for diplomatic approaches, in a separate question, 67 percent of Americans say the United States should be willing to meet and talk with Iranian leaders (p. 29)....
Republicans see greater threats in nearly all areas tested in the 2012 survey. They are more likely than Democrats and Independents to view U.S. debt to China, immigration, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Iran’s nuclear program as critical threats (p. 42).
It would appear that Americans -- particularly independents -- have become even more realpolitik than they were when I wrote this five years ago. Or, to put it more pungently, poll results like these are the kind of thing that will make John Bolton really angry and Jennifer Rubin really scared and William Kristol and the rest of the Weekly Standard gang all hot and bothered -- and not in the good way.
Now, I strongly suspect that this won't matter to most undecideds. Foreign policy really isn't a high priority for most voters. That said, there are three ways in which this could matter.
First, undecideds likely hold that position because they haven't paid a lot of attention to the campaign yet. As they start to, it's going to be easier for them to process the rhetorical differences on Iran than on health care. So if Romney is going to attract the bulk of these undecideds, he's going to do it despite his foreign policy pronouncements -- not because of them. In an election where a 2% advantage seems insurmountable in a lot of states, even tiny disadvantages matter.
Second, the Obama campaign seems to be quite eager to micro-target key audiences on foreign policy/national security, as VandeHei and Allen note in their story:
Obama’s plan is to slice and dice his way through myriad campaigns, all distinct, all designed to turn on — or off — very specific subsets of voters in specific states or even counties. Republicans concede Obama is better organized in the areas getting hit with the micro-campaigns....
The Obama plan also focuses on students with an education message; veterans in states that include Virginia, Florida, Colorado and Nevada; housing in Nevada and Florida, where the market tanked; and military families in Virginia, Florida and Colorado (emphasis added).
I am willing to bet that these groups are not going to be keen to hear anything about a more bellicose foreign policy, and Romney's waning competency on the issue won't help.
Third -- and finally -- look at it this way: if the economy doesn't produce the national poll movements that the Romney campaign wants, they'll have to shift to secondary issues. For the last forty years, the GOP has been able to go to foreign policy and national security. If Romney does that this time, however, he'll alienate the very independents he needs to win.
Could Romney/Ryan simply retool their foreign policy message for the general election to allay the concerns of independents and undecideds? No, I don't think they can. For one thing, it's simply too late to rebrand. For another, when cornered on these questions they seem to like doubling down on past statements. Finally, I get the sense that one reason Romney sounds so hawkish is because the campaign thinks it's a cheap way to appeal to the GOP base. Deviating from that script to woo the undecideds will only fuel suspicion of Romney's conservative bona fides.
So maybe, just maybe, foreign policy will matter a little bit during this election. And not in a way that helps Mitt Romney.
Am I missing anything?
As the Barack Obama gears up his re-election campaign, plenty of political commentators have proffered their advice for which past American election should guide his strategy. Why not look overseas, however? After all, in North Korea, paramount leader Kim Jong Un visited some newly-built apartments that his father Kim Jong Il " paid deep attention from sites to designing and building." Apparently, the residents were crying at the opportunity to meet Kim and his wife. That's leadership.
On the other hand, Kim's visit smacks a bit of standard Western politicking. Maybe Obama should be thinking on a more grandiose level.
In the New York Times, Andrew Kramer provides an excellent template, recounting the heroic exploits of Russian President Vladimir Putin:
Russia’s president piloted a motorized hang glider over an Arctic wilderness while leading six endangered Siberian cranes toward their winter habitat, as part of an operation called “The Flight of Hope,” his press office confirmed Wednesday.
While Mr. Putin recently has found some resistance to his stewardship at home, he found a more receptive crowd among his feathered followers. Experts say that when raised in captivity, these cranes quickly form bonds with figures they perceive as parents. That is a role, apparently, that Mr. Putin has been training for....
Mr. Putin on past expeditions has tranquilized a tiger, used a crossbow to extract tissue from a whale and put a tracking collar on a polar bear. News of his latest plan rippled over the Internet all day Wednesday, to great merriment. Some wondered just how far he would go. Would he try to imitate the gasping-shrieking cry of the cranes, to instill more faith in his leadership?
He has also appeared shirtless riding a horse in Siberia and flown on a fighter jet, a bomber and an amphibious firefighting airplane. Last summer, he dived into the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea and, remarkably, quickly discovered fragments of two ancient Greek urns.
Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, however, was later compelled to admit that the discovery was staged.
Oh, man, now I want Putin to be my president, but only after he strangles three enemies of the United States with his bare hands!! I don't care if the enemies are already dead when he does it -- this is a real leader!!
Sure, skeptics might point out that the last time a president of the United States got all macho and donned a flight suit, it didn't end well. And maybe, just maybe, a political leader trying to act like a superhero is harkening back to the outdated and ephemeral notion of Weberian charismatic leadership. Or, perhaps, this kind of derring-do realy masks personal insecurities and... inadequacies that don't need to be discussed on a family blog. But dammit, in this world of the new normal, we need heroes!!
I hereby challenge my readers to devise new heroic exploits for Barack Obama to accomplish as a way of exercising raw, pure, unfiltered leadership. Here are a few suggestions:
2) Inspired by Man on Fire, Barack Obama goes to Mexico and takes care of the drug cartel problem -- single-handedly.
3) After three years, Barack Obama has laid the groundwork for collecting an assemblage of fellow crusaders for truth, justice and the American Way. With a superteam of Michelle Obama, Bill Gates, Seal Team Six, Tom Cruise, the cast of The Expendables, Michael Phelps, Kerri Walsh, Misty-May Treanor, the 1992 and 2012 Dream Teams, and -- of course -- Bill and Hillary Clinton, this elite group of avengers reverse-Red Dawns the Russian Federation, defeating Putin and vanquishing, once and for all, America's number one geopolitical foe.
Any other suggestions?
Your humble blogger has fiercely resisted getting drawn into the scrum regarding Niall Ferguson's Newsweek jeremiad against Barack Obama. I kinda already said my piece about Ferguson as a polemicist more than a year ago. The
fact-check critical blowback and Ferguson's response and the response to Ferguson's response have been truly nasty. And I'm supposed to be on vacation. There are beaches very close to where I am typing this. The Official Blog Wife will be unhappy -- and you do not want to see the Official Blog Wife unhappy on vacation.
At the moment, however, I find myself alone next to a computer. And I have noticed that most of the commentary has been directed at Ferguson's discussion of the U.S. economy. The foreign policy section of the essay has been comparatively neglected (though see here), and I was curious to see how it held up to a fact-check. So -- quickly, before the Official Blog Family returns from the beach -- let's dive in!
The failures of leadership on economic and fiscal policy over the past four years have had geopolitical consequences. The World Bank expects the U.S. to grow by just 2 percent in 2012. China will grow four times faster than that; India three times faster. By 2017, the International Monetary Fund predicts, the GDP of China will overtake that of the United States.
David Frum has already pointed out -- in a defense of Ferguson, mind you -- the ways in which Ferguson's calculatons of the Chinese economy are... er... geopolitically a bit off. By using purchasing power parity rather than market exchange rates, Ferguson is magnifying China's economic power just a wee bit. Or as Frum puts it, "things are not yet quite so dire as Ferguson fears."
Meanwhile, the fiscal train wreck has already initiated a process of steep cuts in the defense budget, at a time when it is very far from clear that the world has become a safer place—least of all in the Middle East.
You know, it's a funny coincidence, cause I was just perusing the Institute for Economics and Peace's 2012 Global Peace Index, which measures "the extent to which countries are involved
in ongoing domestic and international conflicts." A key conclusion they draw in the 2012 report? "The average level of peacefulness in 2012 is approximately the same as it was in 2007 (p. 37)." So, actually, it is somewhat clear that the world -- and the United States -- remains comparatively safe and secure.
For me the president’s greatest failure has been not to think through the implications of these challenges to American power. Far from developing a coherent strategy, he believed—perhaps encouraged by the premature award of the Nobel Peace Prize—that all he needed to do was to make touchy-feely speeches around the world explaining to foreigners that he was not George W. Bush.
I discussed whether the Obama administration had a grand strategy at length in Foreign Affairs last year. I think Ferguson has half a point here on the "touchy-feely speeches" Obama delivered in his first year -- but his administration has clearly pivoted (get it?) away from that first-year approach
In Tokyo in November 2009, the president gave his boilerplate hug-a-foreigner speech: “In an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another ... The United States does not seek to contain China ... On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.” Yet by fall 2011, this approach had been jettisoned in favor of a “pivot” back to the Pacific, including risible deployments of troops to Australia and Singapore. From the vantage point of Beijing, neither approach had credibility.
What evidence is there that the rebalancing strategy hasn't worked and lacks credibility? The initial response to the pivot was pretty positive, and it's safe to say that China noticed it. I'm not saying that no evidence exists, mind you. I'm saying that sheer assertion by Ferguson does not in and of itself constiute evidence.
Believing it was his role to repudiate neoconservatism, Obama completely missed the revolutionary wave of Middle Eastern democracy—precisely the wave the neocons had hoped to trigger with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. When revolution broke out—first in Iran, then in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria—the president faced stark alternatives. He could try to catch the wave by lending his support to the youthful revolutionaries and trying to ride it in a direction advantageous to American interests. Or he could do nothing and let the forces of reaction prevail.
In the case of Iran he did nothing, and the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations. Ditto Syria. In Libya he was cajoled into intervening. In Egypt he tried to have it both ways, exhorting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave, then drawing back and recommending an “orderly transition.” The result was a foreign-policy debacle. Not only were Egypt’s elites appalled by what seemed to them a betrayal, but the victors—the Muslim Brotherhood—had nothing to be grateful for. America’s closest Middle Eastern allies—Israel and the Saudis—looked on in amazement.
"This is what happens when you get caught by surprise," an anonymous American official told the New York Times in February 2011. “We’ve had endless strategy sessions for the past two years on Mideast peace, on containing Iran. And how many of them factored in the possibility that Egypt moves from stability to turmoil? None.”
Man, there's a lot to unpack here. First, I'm calling bulls**t on the Iran claim. Note to Niall: it's never a good idea to use a Jennifer Rubin talking point. Second, I'm pretty sure the administration has been active in Syria -- just not as active as Ferguson would like. Third, it's waaaaay too soon and simplistic describe Egypt as a "foreign-policy debacle."
Regarding the strategic surprise, Ferguson is telling the truth but not the whole truth. Sure, Obama was caught unawares. So was everyone else. I talked to a lot of high-ranking Israeli leaders/thinkers when I visited the country less than six months before the Arab Spring, and not a single person we talked to even hinted at any kind of pan-Arab uprising. Ferguson attends Herzliya regularly, so I'm curious whether he knows any Israelis who picked up on this.
My point here is that Israel has a powerful incentive to monitor everything going on in the Arab world -- and they didn't pick up on the Arab Spring. Does Ferguson seriously believbe a President McCain would have detected it?
Remarkably the president polls relatively strongly on national security. Yet the public mistakes his administration’s astonishingly uninhibited use of political assassination for a coherent strategy. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, the civilian proportion of drone casualties was 16 percent last year. Ask yourself how the liberal media would have behaved if George W. Bush had used drones this way. Yet somehow it is only ever Republican secretaries of state who are accused of committing “war crimes.”
The real crime is that the assassination program destroys potentially crucial intelligence (as well as antagonizing locals) every time a drone strikes. It symbolizes the administration’s decision to abandon counterinsurgency in favor of a narrow counterterrorism. What that means in practice is the abandonment not only of Iraq but soon of Afghanistan too. Understandably, the men and women who have served there wonder what exactly their sacrifice was for, if any notion that we are nation building has been quietly dumped. Only when both countries sink back into civil war will we realize the real price of Obama’s foreign policy.
Ferguson makes some interesting points here, but can we talk about the elephant in the room? Why does Ferguson think Obama polls well on national security? Killing bin Laden, the Libya war, the rebalancing strategy, and the withdrawal from Iraq are commonly cited. Guess which one on that list Ferguson fails to mention.
As for what veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq think, well, Pew polled vets on this very question in the fall of 2011. The results? "While post-9/11 veterans are more supportive than the general public, just one-third (34%) say that, given the costs and benefits to the U.S., the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have both been worth fighting." Nevertheless, 96% of them felt proud of their military service. So I'm guessing that they want the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan too.
[UPDATE: Damn Pew's deceptive topline results! Looking a bit deeper, I see support for the war in Afghanistan still commands 50% support among post-9/11 veterans. On the other hand, these post-9/11 veterans also overwhelmingly (87%) support the increased use of unmanned drones that Ferguson dislikes so much.]
America under this president is a superpower in retreat, if not retirement. Small wonder 46 percent of Americans—and 63 percent of Chinese—believe that China already has replaced the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower or eventually will.
I like using survey data to bolster my arguments just as much as the next guy -- but I'm also willing to say quite clearly when the public is wrong about something -- and they're wrong about this. Furthermore, Ferguson knows this perception is wrong. We know from the previous paragraph that he doesn't care for public attitudes when he disagrees with them, but he uses it here. The reason? This time it supports his argument.
My verdict: the foreign policy section isn't as bad as the domestic policy section of Ferguson's article, but it's still sloppy. Ferguson makes a lot of lazy assertions without backing them up with facts. Some of the facts he uses are a bad fit for the arguments he's trying to make. And he values similar data points differently depending on whether they support his argument or not.
There are some good critiques that can be made of the Obama administration's foreign policy, and Ferguson skirts close to some of them. But Romney supporters can do better.
For the past few days I've been getting emails asking whether I'm gonna comment on one of the most offensive and brutally effective campaign ads I have ever seen:
It's brutal because... well, let's face it, that Romney tic was always the most cringe-worthy aspect of the campaign. Anything negative that Romney did, contrasted with that song, would be powerful.
It's ridiculously offensive, however, because it baldly asserts that doing business with Mexico, China or Switzerland is un-American. Other idiocies like the Olympic-uniform controversy feed into the public perception that having the other countries make stuff is an abomination of the first degree.
So, does it matter for policy? Well.... no.
Mario Cuomo once said "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose." Now, Mario Cuomo was clearly the world's worst poetry connoisseur. Still, to update his observation for our current needs, we can say, "You campaign as a mercantilist; you govern as a free-trader." The reason that Romney has seemed so discombobulated by the Bain attacks is that he's been China-bashing since Day One ofhis campaign, so it's tough to then
flip-flop pivot to a free trade stance. As for Obama, Matthew Yglesias noted the following last week:
[A]ll indications are that Barack Obama also doesn't think Bain was doing anything wrong. As president he's made no moves to make it illegal for companies to shift production work abroad and has publicly associated himself with a wide range of American firms—from GE to Apple and beyond—who've done just that to varying extents. And we all remember what happened to Obama's promise to renegotiate NAFTA after taking office, right?
Or, David Brooks today:
Over the years of his presidency, Obama has not been a critic of globalization. There’s no real evidence that, when he’s off the campaign trail, he has any problem with outsourcing and offshoring. He has lavishly praised people like Steve Jobs who were prominent practitioners. He has hired people like Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, whose company embodies the upsides of globalization. His economic advisers have generally touted the benefits of globalization even as they worked to help those who are hurt by its downsides.
But, politically, this aggressive tactic has worked.
Brooks' colleague Nate Silver might quibble a bit with the "politically working" point, but that's a small quibble. Americans loooooooove mercantilism, so this kind of rhetoric makes tactical sense during a campaign. As stomach-churning as I find this kind of ad, I must reluctantly agree with Yglesias and Brooks that it doesn't matter all that much for governing. Even this Washington Post story that talks about Obama's "rethinking" of free trade doesn't really deliver the goods on significant policy shifts. And it appears that even the Chinese government recognize campaign bluster for what it is.
So -- to repeat a theme -- I don't think the mercantilist campaign rhetoric will amount to much.
Still, as someone who thinks offshore outsourcing is an unobjectionable practice, this is going to be a nauseating campaign.
The news that Mitt Romney is planning a overseas trip/foreign policy address has led to some... interesting reactions among libertarians/realists. Even before the trip was announced, Daniel Larison thought it was a bad idea for Romney to focus on foreign policy at all. After the trip was trial-ballooned, Larison still thought it was a bad idea -- as did Justin Logan at the Cato Institute (guest-posting on Steve Walt's blog).
As someone who thought this wasn't the worst notion in the world, it's worth reviewing their objections. In toto:
1) Romney's neoconservative-friendly foreign policy views are unpopular in both the United States and many of the countries on Romney's itinerary -- so there's no upside. As Larison puts it: "Romney’s hawkish critics haven’t fully grasped that foreign policy has become a weakness for the GOP over the last six years, so it makes no sense to them that it might help their presidential candidate to avoid talking about it."
2) This is an election about the economy, and any energy Romney devotes to foreign policy is wasted. As Logan notes, "Sometimes foreign-policy wonks have trouble divorcing what they are interested in from what voters are interested in.... Unless I'm missing something big here, every minute Romney spends overseas is a minute he's spending away from winning the election."
3) Even if (1) and (2) do not apply, there is very little political upside to be gained from visiting other countries. Larison goes through the various possible upsides for a challenger to go abroad, but doesn't find them terribly convincing.
So, how to respond? First, let's parse this out into two questions. First, should candidates talk more about foreign policy because it's good for democracy? Second, is it in their own political interests to talk more/visit other countries?
I hope Larison and Logan would agree that, political imperatives aside, it would be A Good Thing for the Country if presidential candidates talked more about foreign policy. Presidents have much more leeway in conducting foreign policy than domestic policy. They wind up spending about half their time and energy as president on foreign policy. Given its importance to the office, the fact that it's not talked about all that much during the campaign is kinda problematic. It might be worthwhile for major party candidates to openly discuss/think about their foreign policy views just a bit.
Now, on whether it's politically savvy for presidential candidates to talk about this stuff, I largely agree with Logan and Larison. Voters don't care about foreign policy. In Romney's case, however, there are a few reasons why a summer foreign policy trip makes some sense.
First, er, it's the summer. Logan is correct that foreign policy wonks tend to confuse what interests them with what interests the public, but so do campaign advisors. The undecideds aren't dwelling on politics at the moment, and likely won't do so until after the Summer Olympics are over. All these peple will do is process the occasional headline. If Romney has to choose between this headline and ones about foreign policy, he might prefer the latter.
Second, at least one of his foreign policy trips will play well domestically. Larison and Logan grumble about it, but they both appear to acknowledge that the Israel leg of the trip would likely fire up the evangelical base and peel off disaffected Jews from Obama's coalition. If he's going all the way to Israel, then a few more days/stops make some sense.
Third, and finally, Romney dug his own grave on this issue. In op-ed after op-ed, Romney has relied on blowhard rhetoric and a near-total absence of detail to make his case. In doing so, Romney is the one who has sowed the doubts about his foreign policy gravitas in the first place. If his campaign manages to produce a successful foreign policy speech/road trip, he can dial down one source of base criticism -- and focus again on the economy in the fall. And eliminating base citicism matters domestically -- the media tends to magnify within-party critiques as being more newsworthy.
The best criticism is Larison's contention that the actual content of Romney's foreign policy vision might not go down so well with the American people. This might be true, but it might not be. The thing is, no one is entirely sure what Romney thinks about foreign policy. Maybe his op-eds were nothing but rhetorical bluster -- as campaign musings about foreign policy tend to be. It's also possible/likely that whatever foreign policy speeches he delivers in the next month or so wouldn't match his actions once in office. As I noted last year, however, there is value in having a presidential candidate demonstrate "generic foreign policy knowledge."
I suspect both Larison and Logan would prefer a foreign policy in which the United States doesn't aim to do as much abroad, allowing the country to retrench and revitalize the domestic economy. That's a compelling argument (and, actually, one that President Obama made in his first few years of office). Just because Romney might disagree with that approach, however, is no reason for him to clam up on foreign affairs this summer. As a democracy, we're entitled to hear about how he thinks about these issues. Politically, a well-executed foreign policy trip won't net him a lot of votes, but it would cauterize a festering politcal wound and allow him to pivot back to the economy.
The Romney campaign has come in for a fair amount of criticism in the past week or so. Most of this is fairly typical summer doldrums stuff, but some of it has to do with Romney's foreign-policy musings -- or lack thereof. On this issue in particular, William Kristol, Gerry Seib, Fred Kaplan, and, er, your humble blogger have been pillorying the campaign for a near-complete lack of substance.
According to Politico's Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin, the Romney campaign seems to have been listening:
Mitt Romney’s campaign is considering a major foreign policy offensive at the end of the month that would take him to five countries over three continents and mark his first move away from a campaign message devoted almost singularly to criticizing President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy, sources tell POLITICO.
The tentative plan being discussed internally would have Romney begin his roll-out with a news-making address at the VFW convention later this month in Reno, Nev. The presumptive GOP nominee then is slated to travel to London for the start of the Olympics and to give a speech in Great Britain on U.S. foreign policy.
Romney next would fly to Israel for a series of meetings and appearances with key Israeli and Palestinian officials. Then, under the plan being considered, he would return to Europe for a stop in Germany and a public address in Poland, a steadfast American ally during the Bush years and a country that shares Romney’s wariness toward Russia. Romney officials had considered a stop in Afghanistan on the journey, but that’s now unlikely.
Sources stressed that the trip was still being planned but will be finalized internally this week, and some of the details are subject to change. While Romney is likely to lash Obama in his VFW speech, he’s expected to restrain his remarks about the president when speaking abroad.
Huh. Now, obviously, I can't comment on the content of any of these speeches. Still, the country selections are themselves revealing, as Burns & Haberman elaborate on in their Politico story. How do those choices stack up? Laura Rozen was a bit skeptical, tweeting that "his reported itinerary only seems 25 yrs out of date." Kristol responded in the Politico story by urging Romney to go to Afghanistan.
My initial response falls more into the Larry David camp on this one. The goal of a trip like this is twofold: to try to demonstrate some kind of foreign-policy gravitas, and to draw a distinction between one's foreign-policy views and that of the opponents. The second part is really tricky to do overseas, because one of the few norms of comity left in Washington is that public officials aren't supposed to criticize a sitting president's foreign policy in foreign lands. Romney can finesse this by going to countries where he thinks he can foster a stronger bilateral relationship, in contrast to Obama (it would be more awkward for him to go to countries where he thinks the U.S. should be less friendly, so I think we can rule out stops in Moscow and Beijing).
By that standard, this is a decent list. The stops in Israel and Poland highlight the frictions the Obama administration's rebalancing and reset strategies have created in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Going to Germany allows Romney to ding Obama on economic policy, as Romney is clearly more sympatico with Angela Merkel's austerity strategy.
If I were planning the itinerary, however, I'd suggest two additional stops. First, India. That's another country where bilateral relations have cooled off a bit during the Obama years. It's also one of the BRIC economies, which would allow Romney to disprove Laura Rozen's charge of being out-of-touch with current geopolitical realities. Second, Seoul. This would allow Romney to blast North Korea with invective while talking about his vision for the Pacific Rim.
What do you think? Where would you have Romney go visit?
Dear Governor Romney,
Congratulations on securing the GOP nomination and earning a roughly 50/50 shot at becoming president in January 2013. It was an ugly primary fight, but you're passed it and have been consolidating your right flank. Politically speaking, nicely done.
Now, I know you want this campaign to be about the economy, the economy, and the economy, but can we talk about foreign policy for just a little bit? Because if you don't talk about international relations, your advisors are gonna continue to bitch and moan to the press, like they did this week to Rich Oppel at the New York Times and Eli Lake at Daily Beast.
This will be an ongoing problem for you, because an emerging meme is that your campaign has remarkably little policy content. Your campaign didn't handle immigration terribly well, for example. Indeed, on foreign policy, you've actually been a bit more forthcoming than on other policy dimensions. The thing is, what you've said in recent months has prompted... er... well... either mockery or derision. No one knows whether you're the second coming of neoconservatism or a more realpolitik foreign policy leader. This lack of certainty is making a lot of people itchy.
One of your consistent themes has been to bash President Obama because "his positions in foreign policy have not communicated American strength and resolve." The thing is, if you can't even control your own foreign policy advisors from blabbing to anyone and everyone who writes about foreign policy, well, then you're not really communicating strength and resolve either, are you?
We agree that this election should primarily be about the economy. But I suspect we also agree that voters need to be comfortable with a presidential candidate as a commander-in-chief and a foreign policy leader. After four years, President Obama has carved out a record that is not without blemishes but is pretty clearly above the bar in terms of foreign policy competence. The burden is on you to demonstrate that you can be above the bar as well. So far, all you've demonstrated is that you might be better at foreign policy than Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, or Rick Perry, which is a really low bar.
President Obama has made a hash of his policy towards Israel and Palestine. Relations with Pakistan, Russia, India and Canada have cooled off considerably since the Bush years. America's relationship with Latin America and Africa seems uncertain at best. Cybersecurity remains an inchoate mess. On foreign economic policy, it's not clear at all that Obama can get the G-20 to agree on anything and the Doha trade round is dead, dead, dead. There's clearly room for improvement, and American foreign policy benefits from a vigorous marketplace of ideas. So show some leadership, get your team in line, and articulate a foreign policy vision that goes beyond the vague nostrums of "An American Century."
Seriously, get it together.
Daniel W. Drezner
I spent most of today on a transcontinental flight either sitting on the tarmac or cursing at the executives at United Airlines dumb enough to think 1) A Katherine Heigl movie will put everyone in a better mood; and 2) Running out of food -- for purchase, mind you -- halfway through the flight would be a swell idea.
I was, in other words, in a very cranky mood. And then someone asked me to look at a Paul Saunders essay over at The National Interest. Here's how it opens:
The Obama administration’s poor handling of its interaction with Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng has prompted renewed denunciations of its “realist” foreign policy, already a focus for critics of its approach to Russia, the Middle East and other major international issues. Yet while criticism of the administration’s conduct is appropriate, calling it “realist” is misguided. In fact, the administration’s aimless and stumbling pragmatism is giving realism and realists a bad name.
Pragmatism is a central component of foreign-policy realism, but it is only so when firmly subordinated to a strategic vision founded on American interests and reflecting American values. While President Obama and senior administration officials cling rhetorically to a strategic vision based on a pragmatic version of liberal internationalism, attempting to build a rule-based liberal international order, the sum total of U.S. policy appears instead to define a considerably narrower goal: avoiding international problems, particularly when they have domestic political consequences.
Oh thank you thank you thank you -- there's nothing that puts me in a better mood than seeing tripe like this and ripping it to shreds.
1) They don't give a flying fig about promoting "American values" overseas;
2) They don't sweat the small stuff.
The first point is Realism 101, and doesn't need to be elaborated upon. It's the second thing that matters more here. Seriously, all realists pretty much care about is the relationships among the great powers. And if you step back, the signal theme of the Obama administration's foreign policy guidance and national security guidance has been to disengage from costly ground campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and refocus energy on the most dynamic region in the global economy and the only one with a possible rising hegemon. That seems to fit this description of a realist foreign policy pretty well. That's exactly what the Obama administration has done with its "strategic pivot" or "rebalancing" or whatever they're calling it this week.
If you focus on the big picture, this administration is really realist. If you focus on small tactical errors like the Chen case and inductively generalize from that, well, you've revealed yourself to be someone without a firm grasp of realpolitik principles in the first place.
Congratulations to Mr. Saunders for being this week's Vizzini Award winner -- I don't think "realism" means what he thinks it means.
So it turned out that this was the week that both the Romney campaign and the Obama campaign decided that foreign policy was an important thing to talk about during election season. Speaking personally, this is great!! I seem to have moved up in the Rolodex of those covering the campaign. Expect lots of juicy quotes in the months to come, and readers are warmly encouraged to proffer useful metaphors that I can provide in soundbite fashion over the next six months.
Unfortunately for the Romney campaign, this was not a great week to ramp up attacks along this line. The reasons is that, all told, the Obama administration had a pretty good foreign policy week. Not all, or even most of this, was of its own doing, but consider the following:
1) Iran has signaled a genuine willingness to talk compromise on its nuclear program in order to avoid the EU oil embargo kicking in. That might just be rhetoric, but it's interesting to note that even senior Israeli officials are starting to talk down the Iranian threat. The less Iran becomes a thing, the
lower gas prices can fall better for the administration.
2) The United States has maybe, just maybe, eliminated a major thorn in bilateral relations with Japan by finally reaching agreement on moving U.S. troops from Okinawa. We'll see if this holds -- everyone assumed that a 2006 agreement had put this problem to rest before successive Japanese governments
shot themselves in the foot raised it again, but this is the thing on this list for which the administration deserves the most credit. As an added bonus, the administration actually got some nice words from John McCain on comity with the Senate.
3) For some reason China seems to be in a more productive mood in their dealings with the United States, and Mark Landsler and Steven Lee Myers have taken notice in the New York Times:
For years, China stymied efforts to pressure Iran. Now, in addition to throwing its weight behind the sanctions effort, officials say, Beijing is also playing a more active role in the recently revived nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers — the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany. While in past negotiations, Beijing has followed in lockstep the positions taken by Russia, this time Chinese diplomats are offering their own proposals.
“One of the key elements of making this work is unity among the major powers,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic exchanges. “The Chinese have been very good partners in this regard.”
There are also signs of new cooperation on Syria. Only weeks after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called China’s veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution “despicable,” China is supporting Kofi Annan’s peace plan for the strife-torn country and is deploying monitors to help oversee it. Even on North Korea, which China has long sheltered from tougher international action, the Chinese government quickly signed on to a United Nations statement condemning the North’s recent attempt to launch a satellite.
And there is progress on the economic front: American officials said China recently loosened trading on its currency, the remninbi, which could help close a valuation gap with the dollar that has stoked trade tensions between China and the United States during an election year.
To some seasoned observers of China, these developments are less a harbinger of a new era of cooperation between Beijing and Washington than evidence that, at least for now, the interests of the two countries coincide in some important areas.
The administration will nevertheless be happy to pocket the policy dividends.
4) Staying in Northeast Asia, it turns out that the big bad North Korean ICBMs are little more than a pipe dream -- and western analysts are starting to say that Kim Jong Un is naked in the public square:
North Korea tried to flex its military might with an extravagant parade on April 15, just three days after it admitted that its missile test had been a failure, but analysts now say that the new intercontinental ballistic missiles on display in the meticulously choreographed parade were nothing more than props.
The analysts studied photos of the six missiles and came to their conclusion for three primary reasons: 1. The missiles did not fit the launchers that carried them. 2. The missiles appear to be made out of both liquid-fuel and solid-fuel components that are unable to fly together. 3. The casings on the missiles undulate which suggests the metal is not thick enough to hold up during flight.
"There is no doubt that these missiles were mock-ups," Markus Schiller and Robert Schmucker, of Germany's Schmucker Technologie , wrote in a paper recently posted on Armscontrolwonk.com. "It remains unknown if they were designed this way to confuse foreign analysts, or if the designers simply did some sloppy work."
If the U.S. government can claim progress on Iran, China, North Korea, and Japan in one week, that's a good foreign policy week. Of course, for a lot of these issues, the administration is the beneficieary of circumstances rather that pro-active policies. Still, the administration deserves some credit for some of these development.
It's just one week, though. And I fear the most memorable statement about American foreign policy is this rather unfortunate choice of words:
NOTE TO WHITE HOUSE/CAMPAIGN SPEECHWRITERS: In the future, avoid having Biden utter any of the following: "big stick", "hard power", "pounding the enemy", "won't take no for an answer", and "smooth-talking his adversaries".
Am I missing anything?
Your humble blogger has been underwhelmed with Mitt Romney's foreign policy pronouncements to date. Sure, I thought what he was saying was far better than most of the rest of the GOP 2012 field, but that's like complimenting Moe on being the smart Stooge.
The past month or so have not helped matters. During this period, Romney has continued to harp on Obama's non-existent "apology tour", published an op-ed on China that the Hulk could have drafted, and labeled a dysfunctional and demographically dying state our number one geopolitical foe.
In fairness, the Romney campaign has a tough task. Obama's foreign policy has been far from perfect, but he's hit the key notes reasonably well. U.S. standing abroad has risen considerably, Osama bin Laden is dead, U.S. grand strategy has pivoted towards the most dynamic region in the world, and his Secretary of State is a badass texter. There are angles where Romney could try to hit Obama - the Iraq withdrawal, the planned drawdown in Afghanistan -- except that the American public overwhelmingly endorses these moves. That ground is not fertile. This has reduced the Romney campaign to do little but shout "Iran is dangerous! Israel is getting thrown under the bus!!" a lot. The fact that the Obama White House seems delighted to highlight this stuff is not a good sign for the Romney folk.
This is a shame. Foreign policy might actually matter in this campaign, and it would be nice if there was a genuine debate. For that to happen, however, the Romney campaign needs to actually mount a substantive critique as opposed to a purely oppositional one. They need to seize on an issue and show how it represents the flaws of Obama's foreign policy approach.
Might I suggest North Korea? From today's New York Times front-pager by Mark Landler and Jane Perlez:
With North Korea poised to launch a long-range missile despite a widespread international protest, the Obama administration is trying to play down the propaganda value for North Korea’s leaders and head off criticism of its abortive diplomatic opening to Pyongyang in late February....
[T]he administration’s options are limited. The United States will not seek further sanctions in the United Nations Security Council, this official said, because North Korea is already heavily sanctioned and Washington needs to preserve its political capital with China and Russia to win their backing for future measures against Syria and Iran. The more likely scenario at the United Nations is a weaker statement from the Council president.
With North Korea telling reporters that it had begun fueling the rocket, the launching appeared imminent, confronting the Obama administration with a new diplomatic crisis after an agreement that American officials had hoped would open a new chapter with a traditionally hostile and unpredictable nation.
White House officials moved aggressively to deflect criticism of that deal, which offered North Korea food aid in return for a pledge to suspend work on its uranium enrichment program and to allow international inspectors into the country.
Unlike the administration of President George W. Bush, this official said, the Obama administration did not give the North Koreans anything before they violated the agreement by announcing plans to go ahead with the satellite launching. And, he added, the administration expects the North Koreans to abide by the other terms of the deal if it hopes, as it has said, for a fuller diplomatic dialogue.
Still, for President Obama, who prided himself on not falling into the trap of previous presidents in dealing with North Korea, the diplomatic dead end has been a frustrating episode: proof that a change in leadership in Pyongyang has done nothing to change its penchant for flouting United Nations resolutions, paying no heed to its biggest patron, China, and reneging on deals with the United States.
This is an issue that the Romney campaign should be all over. The administration's policy of "strategic patience" followed by "let's make a deal with Kim the Younger" has not worked well. The DPRK highlights the Obama administration's reluctance to talk tough with China and the ways in which its nonproliferation policy seems to be... troubled. This is taking place in the most strategically interesting part of the world. In other words, this is an issue where Obama's record has been radically imperfect and a solid critique should resonate. Sure, there's no magic solution or anything, but attacking Obama on this issue is at least a way for Romney to articulate exactly what he means when he signals his hawkishness.
So let's see how the Romney campaign responds. Disappointingly, North Korea was not even mentioned in the Romney foreign policy team's open letter to Obama, and it's nowhere on Romney's campaign blog. If that doesn't change by the end of this week, then I'll know I don't really need to take his foreign policy pronouncements all that seriously.
I'm daring you, Mitt Romney. I'm double-dog-daring you. Let's see if and your team have got the foreign policy goods or not.
ABC News reports on a "hot mic" moment between President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev:
At the tail end of his 90 minute meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev Monday, President Obama said that he would have “more flexibility” to deal with controversial issues such as missile defense, but incoming Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to give him “space.”
The exchange was picked up by microphones as reporters were let into the room for remarks by the two leaders.
President Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.
President Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…
President Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.
President Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.
Now, compared to past "hot mic" moments, this certainly seems less, well, profane. Nevertheless, it has gotten the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin all hot and bothered about the hidden Obama that will emerge in 2013:
It’s helpful to have a vivid illustration of this, but is there anyone who thinks Obama, should he get a second term, wouldn’t run wild with policies and positions that the majority of the electorate oppose? Otherwise, he’d roll them out now, of course....
Elections are taken as mandates by elected officials and the media (even if the message is less clear than the winner would have us believe).
In sum, the election is not simply a referendum on President Obama’s actions to date; it’s essentially a blank check for the president’s second term. Romney should be asking wary independent and moderates: Is there a scintilla of a chance that Obama would be less liberal in a second term?
Rubin's logic seems pretty clear: Obama is really a liberal, and free of political constraint -- particularly on the foreign policy remit -- he'll revert to type. There's just one problem: based on recent evidence, there's an excellent chance Obama will be less liberal in the second term.
Consider the last three two-term presidents: Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 43. I'll grant this is a very small sample, but bear with me. Did their second-term policies look different from their first-term?
You bectha. Reagan tacked in a decidedly liberal direction with respect to the Soviet Union, switching from rhetoric about the "evil empre" to cutting substantive arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. Clinton, on the other hand, tacked in a more conservative direction. After being enamored of multilateralism and leery of using fore in his first term, he became more comfortable with using force and using it outside of UN strictures in his second term. Finally, Bush 43's second terms was decidedly more liberal. In his first term, he declared an "Axis of Evil" and invaded Iraq without UN support. In his second term, however, the Bush administration was decidedly more dovish, working through the UN on both Iran and North Korea, demonstrating a willingness to directly negotiate with the Iranians, and refusing to use force in Syria. This, by the way, is why claiming a continuity between Bush 43 and Obamas is not quite as much of a political jab as people like to claim. The dfifferences between Bush in 2003 and Bush in 2008 were massive.
Now, these narratives are not really as clean as the last paragraph suggests. Reagan also embraced Iran/Contra in his second term. In Clinton's second term he pushed hard to address US arrears to the UN. And Bush had some elements of
compasionate conservatism liberalism in his first term, what with PEPFAR and a refusal to declare a clash of civilizations following the 9/11 attacks.
What's striking, however, is that recent second-termers have not reverted to their ideological bliss point -- if anything it's been the reverse, they've tacked away from their starting point. Part of this is circumstances. Reagan had, in Gorbachev, a real negotiating partner in his second term. Bush had to be more circumspect on Iran and North Korea after the cost and constraint of military operatons in Iraq and Afghanistan. All three presidents had less favorable legislatures in their second term than their first.
Still, it's not all about circumstances. What gives? I'd argue that precisely because presidents have fewer foreign policy constraints than dometic ones, they feel free to pursue their preferred set of policies from day one. Reality, however, quickly determines which ideas are working and which do not have any staying power. Over time, therefore, presidents change tack until they hit on a more successful formula. This usually means overcoming one's personal ideology and embracing new ideas.
I've argued that this is exactly what Obama has done in his first term -- and I'm hardly the only one. And, so, yes, contra Rubin, I think the notion that a second-term of President Obama will be the second coming of the Kellogg-Briand Treaty requires a willful misreading of Obama's first term of foreign policy -- as well as ignorance of the last thirty years of American foreign policy.
Am I missing anything?
I know that Daniel Klaidman's Newsweek cover story on the Navy SEALs is supposed to make me feel all warm and safe because of the uber-competence of SEAL Team Six and President Obama's comfort with using them adroitly:
This is a Special Ops moment. The Navy SEALs, in particular, have never appeared so heroic and effective. They killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last year, and just last month rescued two aid workers held hostage in Somalia. At a time when many Americans think their government is incompetent, the SEALs are public employees who often get the job done. They’re a morale booster, and they know it.
The thing is, one of Klaidman's more detailed anecdotes actually gives me great pause about the decision-making process within the Obama administration about the use of force:
The CIA and military had been hunting Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan for years. He was a suspect in the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and had been directly implicated in other deadly terrorist attacks in East Africa, including a suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned resort in Mombasa. He was an important link between al Qaeda and its Somalia-based affiliate, and a potential wealth of information on how the jihadist networks operate. Killing him would have been a significant victory, but capturing him alive could have been even better.
After months of patiently watching him, American intelligence officers suddenly learned that Nabhan was preparing to travel along a remote desert road in southern Somalia....
McRaven told the group that Nabhan’s convoy would soon be setting out from the capital, Mogadishu, on its way to a meeting of Islamic militants in the coastal town of Baraawe. The square-jawed Texan and former Navy SEAL crisply laid out the “Concepts of Operation” that had been developed in anticipation of this moment. Several options were spelled out, along with the military hardware that would be required for each, as well as collateral-damage estimates:
The military could fire Tomahawk cruise missiles from a warship off the Somali coast. This was the least dangerous option in terms of U.S. casualties but not the most precise. (Missiles have gone astray, hitting civilians, and even when they strike their target, they don’t always take it out.) Such missile strikes had been a hallmark of the Bush administration. For all of its “dead or alive” rhetoric, the Bush White House was generally cautious when it came to antiterrorist operations in anarchic areas like Somalia. The second option was a helicopter-borne assault on Nabhan’s convoy. There was less chance of error there: small attack helicopters would allow the commandos to “look the target in the eye and make sure it was the right guy,” according to one military planner. The final option was a “snatch and grab,” a daring attempt to take Nabhan alive. From a purely tactical standpoint, this was the most attractive alternative. Intelligence from high-value targets was the coin of the realm in the terror wars. But it was also the riskiest option.
Unstated but hanging heavily over the group that evening was the memory of another attempted capture in Somalia. Many on the call had been in key national-security posts in October 1993 during the ill-fated attempt to capture a Somali warlord that became known as “Black Hawk Down,” after a book of the same name. That debacle left 18 dead Army Rangers on the streets of Mogadishu, and inspired al Qaeda leaders to think they could defeat the American superpower. As Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, said during the meeting: “Somalia, helicopters, capture. I just don’t like the sound of this.”
As everyone left the meeting late that evening, it was clear that the only viable plan was the lethal one (emphasis added).
The mission was a success, and I'm sure that there's more to this decision than is in Klaidman's story. That said, based on the story, this decison-making process seems flawed. The deciding factor appears to have been that the more aggressive option had echoes of the 1993 Black Hawk Down fiasco. Because the situations seemed analagous ("Somalia, helicopters") the worst-case outcome -- a botched raid -- also seemed likely.
Here's the thing though -- as analogies go, this one seems somewhat ill-suited. The most obvious difference was that this raid wasn't going to take place in a city but a remote desert road. It was extremely difficult and bloody for U.S. forces to battle their adversaries in the urban anarchy of Mogadishu. In the open, with no civilians to use as shields, I would think JSOC has the advantage. Even if the snatch-and-grab option was the riskiest option, it does not seem as risky as U.S. efforts to rescue the downed Black Hawk crew back in 1993. In this instance, the worst-case scenario would have been some JSOC soldiers killed -- but given the terrain, the lack of civilians and cover, and the likely firepower advantage held by the Americans, a Black Hawk Down II outcome sounds unlikely.
Despite these differences, analogical reasong triumphed. The mission succeeded in taking out Nabhan, but it sounds like the slightly riskier option would have yielded greater rewards.
Let me stress, yet again, that I'm not an expert on special ops. I'd welcome commenters explaining to me why I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. Still, based on this story, the guiding factor in this case appears to have been a poor analogy. I hope this is the exception and not the rule for the current administration.
Am I missing anything?
Mitt Romney's op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal is devoted to China policy. Let's take a read, shall we?
Barack Obama is moving in precisely the wrong direction [on responding to China's rise]. The shining accomplishment of the meetings in Washington this week with Xi Jinping—China's vice president and likely future leader—was empty pomp and ceremony.
President Obama came into office as a near supplicant to Beijing, almost begging it to continue buying American debt so as to finance his profligate spending here at home. His administration demurred from raising issues of human rights for fear it would compromise agreement on the global economic crisis or even "the global climate-change crisis." Such weakness has only encouraged Chinese assertiveness and made our allies question our staying power in East Asia.
Now, three years into his term, the president has belatedly responded with a much-ballyhooed "pivot" to Asia, a phrase that may prove to be as gimmicky and vacuous as his "reset" with Russia. The supposed pivot has been oversold and carries with it an unintended consequence: It has left our allies with the worrying impression that we left the region and might do so again.
The pivot is also vastly under-resourced. Despite his big talk about bolstering our military position in Asia, President Obama's actions will inevitably weaken it. He plans to cut back on naval shipbuilding, shrink our Air Force, and slash our ground forces. Because of his policies and failed leadership, our military is facing nearly $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade.
This is interesting because it's the first time I've seen a GOP candidate try to respond substantively to the "pivot". And, in my book, the criticism that Obama was too much of a supplicant to China in the first part of his term is actually a fair one. Unfortunately, things fall apart after that.
First, Asian allies were worried about the U.S. presence in the region because of the priority the Bush administration placed on the global war on terror, followed by the 2008 financial crisis. Obama had little or nothing to do with it.
Second, it's important and revealing that Romney only talked about the narrow, military part of the pivot. Left unmentioned were the diplomatic components (joining the East Asia Summit, interceding on the South China Sea, warming relations with Myanmar, tripartite between the U.S., Australia and India) as well as the economic components (ratifying the FTA with South Korea, signing the framework agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership). This is important, because any U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific region has to be a full-spectrum approach, while Romney seems peculiarly obsessed with shipbuilding.
Third, the primary message Obama has been sending to Xi has been saying that China "don't play by the rules." Which, coincidentally enough, is exactly the same thing Romney says in the op-ed.
In the economic arena, we must directly counter abusive Chinese practices in the areas of trade, intellectual property, and currency valuation. While I am prepared to work with Chinese leaders to ensure that our countries both benefit from trade, I will not continue an economic relationship that rewards China's cheating and penalizes American companies and workers.
Unless China changes its ways, on day one of my presidency I will designate it a currency manipulator and take appropriate counteraction. A trade war with China is the last thing I want, but I cannot tolerate our current trade surrender. (emphasis added)
The bolded section represents the only portion of the op-ed in which Romney even hints that he might cooperate with China. The rest of it is pretty silly. It's ludicrous for Romney to claim he doesn't want a trade war in the same breath that he promises "day one" action against China. No wonder conservatives are labeling Romney's China policy as "blaringly anti-trade."
To be blunt, this China policy reads like it was composed by the Hulk. Maybe this will work in the GOP primary, but Romney and his China advisors should know better.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.