My FP column this month is about the Obama administration's ham-handed relations with U.S. allies. Why has a president so dedicated to restoring America's standing abroad pissed off so many allies?
[Keeping allies in the loop] isn't just a presidential activity -- it encompasses the whole U.S. foreign policy apparatus, from the secretary of state to the national security advisor to the Pentagon. But in order to consult properly with allies, each of these bureaucracies needs to be familiar with exactly what U.S. intentions are in a particular situation.
The reason that consulting with allies has gone so badly is that it's far from clear that the White House consults all that much with the rest of the executive branch. On Syria, for example, Obama's decision to seek congressional authorization to use force in Syria took his own staff by surprise -- not to mention Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. According to the New York Times, the new U.S. strategy in the Middle East came from a policy review conducted by National Security Advisor Susan Rice and "a tight group that included no one outside the White House." Obama and his staff insist that the White House didn't know the extent of NSA surveillance on foreign leaders, which not only beggars belief but begs the question -- maybe it would have been good to ask? As Dana Milbank snarked, "For a smart man, President Obama professes to know very little about a great number of things going on in his administration."
Of course the observation that Obama seems bad at communicating with other politicos is hardly unique to foreign affairs. Indeed, as Kevin Drum noted last month:
[I]t seems like much of this is an example of what Bill Clinton says he eventually learned about foreign policy: that it's basically the same as domestic policy. Everyone has their own interests, and you just need to keep plugging away at it. Unfortunately, this is, by common consensus, Obama's worst trait. He doesn't schmooze much with domestic leaders and he doesn't schmooze much with foreign leaders either. This is why all these stories about our foreign policy travails spend at least as much time talking about feelings as they do about actual policies. Foreign allies feel dismissed; they feel unconsulted; they feel like no one in the White House really understands their needs....
Obama is almost certainly suffering more from the latest round of disclosures than he would if he were a bit friendlier and chattier with his peers across the world. Unfortunately, that's not his style.
Now, as it turns out, there is one group that Obama does like to schmooze with. According to Politico's Dylan Byers:
President Barack Obama is often accused of being insular. He’s not a schmoozer. He doesn’t like meeting with lawmakers, and he doesn’t particularly care for talking to reporters, either.
But get him in an off-the-record setting with a small group of opinion columnists — the David Brooks and E.J. Dionne types — and he’ll talk for hours.
“He likes the intellectual sparring element of it,” a source familiar with the president’s thinking told POLITICO. “He likes talking to reasonable adversaries.”
He also likes talking to the people he likes to read. The president is a voracious consumer of opinion journalism. Most nights, before going to bed, he’ll surf the Internet, reading the columnists whose opinions he values. One of the great privileges of the presidency is that, when so inclined, he can invite these columnists to his home for meetings that can last as long as two-and-a-half hours.
“It’s not an accident who he invites: He reads the people that he thinks matter, and he really likes engaging those people,” said one reporter with knowledge of the meetings. “He reads people carefully — he has a columnist mentality — and he wants to win columnists over,” said another.
Hmm.... maybe Obama would be better at consulting with allies if the foreign affairs columnists he schmoozed with told him to consult more with allies.
So who does Obama invite among the foreign policy commentariat? Let's see, according to Byers, there's, David Ignatius, Jeffrey Goldberg, Tom Friedman, and.... uh... that's it. Truthfully, that's not such a bad group. It's terrifically small, however.
[This is just a massive throat-clearing exercise by you to wrangle an schmoozing invite, isn't it?--ed. So, three things: A) My day job ain't being a columnist; B) I don't live in DC, so it's not like I could accept; and C) It's not like Obama is a huge fan of bloggers -- though this might be due to pure envy.]
The problem I have is in trying to figure out who else to add to the list. The sad truth is that there ain't a ton of people whose primary job is to write a mainstream foreign affairs column. Nick Kristof? Fred Kaplan? The rest of the Washington Post crew? It's a very thin bench.
So, to sum up: we're in a world where the only cluster of people that the president of the United States wants to engage with are columnists. And the United States is a country that doesn't care about foreign affairs... hence there are very few foreign affairs columnists.
Am I missing anything?
I think it's safe to say that the Middle East is in flux. It's during moments like these, when uncertainty seems to be pretty high, that a grand strategy is useful. A key point of a good grand strategy is to guide action when new circumstances present themselves. I wrote about Obama's grand strategy a few years ago -- has his thinking changed? What is the United States foreign policy machinery currently thinking?
the White House staff leaking an explanation the New York Times' Mark Landler, we have something in the way of an answer. Susan Rice has a plan:
Each Saturday morning in July and August,Susan E. Rice, President Obama’s new national security adviser, gathered half a dozen aides in her corner office in the White House to plot America’s future in the Middle East. The policy review, a kind of midcourse correction, has set the United States on a new heading in the world’s most turbulent region.
At the United Nations last month, Mr. Obama laid out the priorities he has adopted as a result of the review. The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.
That includes Egypt, which was once a central pillar of American foreign policy. Mr. Obama, who hailed the crowds on the streets of Cairo in 2011 and pledged to heed the cries for change across the region, made clear that there were limits to what the United States would do to nurture democracy, whether there, or in Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia or Yemen.
The president’s goal, said Ms. Rice, who discussed the review for the first time in an interview last week, is to avoid having events in the Middle East swallow his foreign policy agenda, as it had those of presidents before him....
[NSC coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Philip] Gordon took part in the Saturday sessions, along with two of Ms. Rice’s deputies, Antony J. Blinken and Benjamin J. Rhodes; the national security adviser to the vice president, Jake Sullivan; the president’s counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco; a senior economic official, Caroline Atkinson; and a handful of others.
It was a tight group that included no one outside the White House, a stark contrast to Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan review in 2009, which involved dozens of officials from the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Ms. Rice said she briefed Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel over weekly lunches.
Some priorities were clear. The election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran presents the West with perhaps its last good chance to curb its nuclear program. Mr. Rouhani has a mandate to ease sanctions on Iran and has signaled an eagerness to negotiate.
But other goals appear to have been dictated as much as by personnel as by policy. After vigorous debate, the group decided to make the Middle East peace process a top priority — even after failing to broker an agreement during the administration’s first term — in part because Mr. Kerry had already thrown himself into the role of peacemaker.
More than anything, the policy review was driven by Mr. Obama’s desire to turn his gaze elsewhere, notably Asia.
Now, on the strategic level, there's some compelling logic to having the president focus more on the Pacific Rim than the Middle East. The whole point of the rebalancing strategy in the first place was to prioritize scarce U.S. resources towards those parts of the globe that are deemed economically dynamic and strategically significant. That's the Pacific Rim, and it sure as hell ain't the Middle East.
That said, there are some reasons to be perturbed after reading Landler's article. Walter Russell Mead has pointed out one possible logical flaw:
There’s... a tension between the top two objectives. The tougher the US is on Iran, the more leverage it has pushing Israel toward concessions on the Palestinians. The more risks the administration takes and concessions it makes to get a deal with Iran, the tighter the Israelis are tempted to circle the wagons. Pursuing both objectives simultaneously risks a car crash, but then the Middle East is littered with wrecked cars from this and past administrations.
This is a good point, and it would trouble me more if I believed that the White House really cared that much about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Landler's article suggests, however, that this is not the case. Rather, it seems clear that the administration has put that item on its strategic priorities list because John Kerry has leaned in. From the White House perspective, it seems like the WMD issue -- which covers both Iran and Syria -- is the only priority.
Is this a good strategy? Well, no.... because this isn't so much a strategy as a list of presidential priorities. On the one hand, the priorities seem just about right. Iran is the most important issue for the United States in the Middle East. A world in which Iran's nuclear program is no longer perceived as a threat opens up all sorts of intriguing possibilities.
Establishing priorities is a useful starting point for developing a regional strategy -- but it can't end there. I can only hope the NSC is also thinking about the following:
1) The means to achieve success in Iran and Israel/Palestine;
2) Response strategies in case negotiations with Iran or those between Israel and Palestine break down/never start up. Or, in the case of Iran, next steps if a deal is actually brokered -- just how far can/should an Iranian/American rapprochement go?
3) Wild card contingencies -- what happens if Al Qaeda establishes a safe haven in Syria? What happens if the Egyptian government disintegrates? What happens if Saudi Arabia or Israel decide that they don't trust the Iranians no matter what deal they sign?
4) Coordinating the rest of the foreign policy bureaucracy. Remember them? It's fine for the White House to establish the administration's foreign policy priorities. But it sure would help if there was some better interagency policy coordination about what to do on these issues. Not to mention....
5) The back seat stuff. Just because President Obama doesn't want to devote his scarce time to democratization in the Middle East means the rest of the U.S. foreign policy machinery can kick back and go on cruise control. Indeed, it is precisely when the president is not engaged on an issue that it matters what the rest of the government is doing.
And the U.S. government needs to be doing something on these other questions. The thing about being the most powerful country in the world is that the idea of complete non-intervention is an illusion. There's always an incentive for one actor or another to pull you back in. The only way that the United States can cope with this is to articulate policies and strategies even in those areas where President Obama doesn't care. It's the only way the U.S. can pursue its foreign policy rather than simply react to others' foreign policy.
Am I missing anything?
Your humble blogger has been banging on for well over a year that a very brutal form of realpolitik was guiding the Obama administration's Syria policy. For example, I wrote the following back in June of this year when the administration announced a plan to arm the Syrian rebels:
To your humble blogger, this is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that's been going on for the past two years. To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible. This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished.... at an appalling toll in lives lost.
This policy doesn't require any course correction... so long as rebels are holding their own or winning. A faltering Assad simply forces Iran et al into doubling down and committing even more resources. A faltering rebel movement, on the other hand, does require some external support, lest the Iranians actually win the conflict.
When I blogged this, I got a fair amount of pushback, arguing that this overestimated the Obama administration's coherence on foreign policy and underestimated the bureaucratic politics going on.
As a useful study aid, Mark Mazzetti, Robert Worth, and Michael Gordon have a pretty well-sourced story in the New York Times that looks at the administration's thinking on Syria over the past few years. Looking over the story, there's clearly some healthy support for the bureaucratic politics narrative:
[A]fter hours of debate in which top advisers considered a range of options, including military strikes and increased support to the rebels, the [June 2013] meeting ended the way so many attempts to define a Syrian strategy had ended in the past, with the president’s aides deeply divided over how to respond to a civil war that had already claimed 100,000 lives....
A close examination of how the Obama administration finds itself at this point — based on interviews with dozens of current and former members of the administration, foreign diplomats and Congressional officials — starts with a deeply ambivalent president who has presided over a far more contentious debate among his advisers than previously known. Those advisers reflected Mr. Obama’s own conflicting impulses on how to respond to the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring: whether to side with those battling authoritarian governments or to avoid the risk of becoming enmeshed in another messy war in the Middle East....
In the first high-level discussion about wading into the conflict a few days later, the C.I.A. director, David H. Petraeus, presented a plan to begin arming and training small groups of rebel forces at secret bases in Jordan. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton backed Mr. Petraeus’s plan. She said it was time for the United States to get “skin in the game.” Mr. Obama went around the table asking what his aides thought about the C.I.A. plan.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and General Dempsey backed it. But others thought the proposal by Mr. Petraeus, a former four-star general who championed covert paramilitary operations, offered high risks with few rewards. Susan E. Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, spoke up by videophone, warning that arming the rebels would draw the United States into a murky conflict that could consume the agenda of the president’s second term and would probably make little difference on the chaotic battlefield.
So, score one for the bureaucratic politics crowd. But I think there's some support for my argument as well:
In private conversations with aides, Mr. Obama described Syria as one of those hellish problems every president faces, where the risks are endless and all the options are bad. Those views would then be reflected in larger groups by Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, and Mr. McDonough.
“You could read the president’s position through Tom and Denis,” one former senior White House official said....
By April, senior officials said, one of the major skeptics, Mr. Donilon, had shifted in favor of arming the rebels. Another strong opponent in the fall, Ms. Rice, had also shifted her position, partly because of the alarming intelligence about the state of the rebellion.
Mr. McDonough, who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria. Accompanying a group of senior lawmakers on a day trip to the Guantánamo Bay naval base in early June, Mr. McDonough argued that the status quo in Syria could keep Iran pinned down for years. In later discussions, he also suggested that a fight in Syria between Hezbollah and Al Qaeda would work to America’s advantage, according to Congressional officials. (emphasis added)
Reviewing the evidence from this story, I don't see a monocausal story here. Clearly, a lack of consensus among Obama's top foreign policymakers buttressed his own stated reluctance to get too deeply involved in Syria. That said, the policymakers with the most influence over the president were articulating a rationale for why continued conflict might not be a bad thing. It's also not a coincidence that a bureaucratic consensus emerged as it became clear that the rebel movement was faltering. These two causal logics complement rather than contradict each other.
[OK, but what about the chemical weapons deal? Doesn't that signal a shift in strategy that binds the Obama administration to the Assad regime?--ed. So long as the chemical weapons removal is proceeding, yes, this is true. But I do wonder about the time inconsistency problem. Once the chemical weapons infrastructure is removed -- and the evidence to date suggests that this is proceeding apace -- then I don't see what keeps the administration from ratcheting up pressure on the Syrian regime. If Assad can't secure his position over the next 3-6 months, then he's facing a more potentially more precarious situation afterwards.]
What do you think?
For the past month or so, your humble blogger has been preoccupied with questions about just how much "credibility" matters in world politics. And for the past week or so, your humble blogger has been preoccupied with the budget/debt ceiling showdowns going on in Washington, DC.
So it's awesome that Bloomberg's Mike Dorning and Margaret Talev have a story that ties these two things together -- on how Obama is viewing this debt showdown with the GOP as a fight over credibility:
Shortly before President Barack Obama was re-elected, he confided to John Podesta, an informal adviser, a vow he was making for his second term: He would never again bargain with Republicans to extend the U.S. debt limit.
The precedent, set in the agreement that ended a 2011 budget standoff, “sent a signal that this was fair game to blackmail over whether the country would default,” said Podesta, a onetime chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and co-chairman of Obama’s 2008 presidential transition, in an interview. “He feels like he has to end it and end it forever.”
The stand Obama has taken on the latest fight over the government shutdown and borrowing limit -- refusing to tie policy conditions to raising the debt ceiling -- is an attempt to repair some of the damage that he and his aides believe he sustained by making concessions to Republicans to avert a default two years ago, according to former top administration officials and advisers.
The resolution of the showdown with House Republicans will be critical to maintaining Obama’s capacity to wield his clout in Washington during the three years left in his presidency and protect the political initiatives of his first term, they say.
The outcome will probably help determine his leverage to press for new priorities such as a revamp of immigration law, expanded access to pre-kindergarten education and infrastructure funding. It may also stave off attacks on his health-care law and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
If Obama makes concessions again to House Republicans over raising the $16.7 trillion debt limit, “he’ll be viewed as a guy who you can hold up,” said Podesta, chairman of the Center for American Progress, a Washington research group with close ties to the administration.
Now, given my profound skepticism about the impact of credibility in world politics, one would think I would share the same dim view about it mattering in domestic politics. Except that I don't.
As I wrote last month about the gap between academics and policymakers on this question:
Academics have the advantage of thinking about the long term; for policymakers, the long term is two weeks (for the Middle East, it's two days). Because of these different perspectives, they look at credibility differently. Academics usually make the country the unit of analysis: does the United States show resolve or not, for example. They care about the role that credibility plays over the span of years. For foreign policymakers, all politics is personal. As Heather Hurlburt intimated in this Bloggingheads conversation, they care about whether they or their boss is perceived by others inside the Beltway as credible or not immediately after a crisis....
If this explanation is correct, then both academics and policymakers are correct. International relations academics might well be correct in observing that what happens in Syria now will not affect what happens in Iran a year from now. Still, policymakers might well be correct in noting that if Barack Obama fails to follow through on his Syria pledges, his personal credibility might take a short-term hit inside the corridors of power.
That point, however, just covers how foreign showdowns are viewed by domestic political actors. The importance of credibility gets magnified even further when appreciating that these same individuals are going to have to go to the bargaining table again and again and again over the next few years. It is in precisely this set of circumstances -- in which the bargaining is ongoing and the individual actors don't change -- that one would expect credibility and a reputation for tough bargaining to be pretty friggin' important (though I'd really, really like to hear from my American politics colleagues on this question).
Of course, this cuts both ways. The problem with the current crisis is that it's dragged on enough so that if you think credibility matters, then both the Obama administration and Republlicans in Congress will face considerable audience costs for backing down. Any kind of concession that the GOP makes -- and let's face it, they've walked a fair way away from their initial bargaining position -- weakens the credibility of their bargaining position the next time around. Which leads to tweets like these:
"Clean" Continuing Resoultion and Debt Ceiling = Blank Check
— JohnCornyn (@JohnCornyn) October 10, 2013
This, by the way, is why I'm queasy about the idea of a short-term fix to allow time for further bargaining. Because whichever side is viewed as having "lost" the current exchange *cough* Republicans *cough* will dig in their heels even more during that future bargaining. Which dramatically increases the likelihood that, two months from now, I'll be linking to this post.
Am I missing anything?
I've written in the past about the disconnect between the liberal internationalism of America's foreign-policy elite and the more realpolitik worldview of the American public. With a flurry of diplomatic moves, as well as his stemwinder of a U.N. General Assembly address, it would seem that President Obama is signaling to the rest of the world that he's shifting closer to the American public's way of thinking on grand strategy.
Naturally, this means it's time for the news analysts to start talking about an "Obama Doctrine" again. Enter the New York Times' David Sanger:
His speech Tuesday at the United Nations signaled how what some have called the Obama Doctrine is once again evolving....
At the United Nations on Tuesday, Mr. Obama drove home the conclusion that he came to after his own party deserted him over a military response to the chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,000 Syrians: The bigger risk for the world in coming years is not that the United States will try to build empires abroad, he argued, but that there will be a price to be paid in chaos and disorder if Americans elect to stay home....
Mr. Obama had absorbed some bitter lessons. His decision to stay on in Afghanistan had not enhanced the perception of American power in the region, and Libya, once the bombing was over, descended into new chaos. Mr. Gates said last week that he saw, in the Syria gyrations, a president absorbing the lesson of a decade of American mistakes, and coming to the right conclusion after the worst possible process.
“Haven’t Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya taught us something about the unintended consequences of military action?” [Former Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates asked.
The question left hanging now is when Mr. Obama will be willing to use force after five years of decidedly mixed experiences. His message now is that the failure of allies and regional neighbors to join with the United States has had a steady, corrosive effect on the American public’s willingness to act.
It's funny Sanger should bring up American public opinion, because the Times just ran a survey on that very question. With the obvious caveat that this is just one poll, let's dive in. As Sanger suggests, one would expect that the public should be delighted that their president is gravitating more closely to their position on the use of force. The results? Let's go to Dalia Sussman:
About half of Americans disapprove of the way President Obama is handling foreign policy, a new high as he confronts a diplomatic opening with Iran and efforts to remove chemical arms in Syria, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
Forty-nine percent disapproved of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy efforts, up 10 points since early June, and 40 percent approved.
The president’s negative rating on foreign policy has grown among Americans of all political stripes, with disapproval up 8 points among Democrats, 10 points among Republicans and 13 points among independents.
The poll also found that 52 percent disapproved of the way Mr. Obama was handling the situation in Syria. On his handling of relations with Iran, 39 percent approved, while 44 percent disapproved.
AHA!! Doesn't sound like the president's new foreign policy actions and words are all that populist to me!! In your face, Sang-- wait, what's this bit deeper down in the story?
On Syria, 82 percent of Americans supported the agreement between the United States and Russia to have Syria turn over all of its chemical weapons. Nevertheless, most — including those who supported the deal — lacked confidence that the Syrian government would do so.
Yet most Americans do not think that failure to comply is grounds for military action, underscoring the public’s deep resistance to involvement in the situation in Syria. The poll found that just 34 percent (including 46 percent of Democrats) support airstrikes against Syria if it does not turn over its chemical weapons, while 57 percent (including about 6 in 10 Republicans and independents) say the United States should not launch airstrikes against Syria at all.
This is interesting, and suggests two things about American attitudes towards Obama's foreign policy. First, one reason for the decline in American attitudes about Obama's foreign policy is that it's still not populist enough. In the run-up to Syria, the president brandished the threat of military force to enforce the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. The Times poll suggests that neither component of that policy sat well with the American people. Americans are happy that Obama agreed to negotiate, but they're decidedly unhappy that he threatened force in the first place.
Second, the poll suggests the ways in which a even a thoroughly populist grand strategy will not necessarily be all that... popular. On the one hand, it's clear that Americans approve of the president's decision not to use force in Syria after threatening to do so. On the other hand, Americans aren't naïve. They know full well that the odds of diplomatic successes in Syria and Iran are not great -- even if that's the option they prefer.
So, to sum up: Americans are deeply skeptical about the use of force, and pretty dubious about the use of diplomacy among adversaries. In other words, Americans remain stone-cold realists.
So what does this all mean for the future of American foreign policy? As I noted last year, Americans used to put up with military actions they disagreed with provided the outcome seemed like a victory. The post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, post-Libya sentiment, however, has shifted the political constraints:
As Libya demonstrated, presidents still have some latitude when choosing to use force. The political risks for presidents to invest political capital into foreign affairs have clearly increased, however. Unless foreign interventions yield immediate, tangible results, Americans will view them as distracting from problems at home. If far-flung military interventions bog down, public support will evaporate. This will make any president regardless of ideology more risk-averse about projecting military power and persisting with it should difficulties arise. For strategic culture, this means a reversion back to the days of the Powell Doctrine and a continued appreciation for economic coercion.
Am I missing anything?
Sure, I could blog about the substance of Obama's Syria speech last night, but John Dickerson captured the problem with its political optics and Joe Weisenthal has captured the market reaction and Andrew Sullivan has the pro-Obama spin and Shibley Telhami or Micah Zenko has the anti-Obama spin.
So, instead... I'm going to risk the wrath of XKCD and talk about the role of social media:
What I found really interesting was what happened after the speech on Twitter. Namely, Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting, took to Twitter in response to two influential foreign policy pundits, The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg and the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof. For example:
@NickKristof CW is in distinct category. Banned by international law - threat to civilians, global security, and international order— Ben Rhodes (@rhodes44) September 11, 2013
@JeffreyGoldberg Increased support for Syrian opposition. Regime cut off from global economy. Geneva process to transition to new government— Ben Rhodes (@rhodes44) September 11, 2013
I've never seen this kind of spin room dynamic play out on Twitter on foreign policy substance. Campaign stuff, sure, but not foreign policy substance.
Dylan Byers noted it too, and reports that Rhodes was part of a larger White House communications push:
While Rhodes worked on Goldberg and Kristof, White House press secretary Jay Carney tweeted quotes from Obama’s speech — “Getting the word out by all available means!,” he tweeted at one Time Magazine reporter — and Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s assistant and senior advisor, tried to counter journalists who argued that Obama’s speech was “old news.”
“[W]e don’t assume the public follows the news as closely as leading political columnists,” Pfeiffer wrote to The Las Vegas Sun’s Jon Ralston. And to Goldberg, he tweeted, “[P]residents don’t ask for time to address columnists who follow every minute of the news, it’s for the public that doesn’t.”
So, on the one hand, this is a New Thing -- which means that, like foreign cyber-espionage, there's a new way to measure status in the foreign policy community: If you're in power, are you important enough to be authorized to tweet in response to a Big Foreign Policy Event? If you're a pundit, are you important enough to have Ben Rhodes tweet at you? I mean, is he at least following you? Somewhere, Mark Leibovich is rubbing his hands together with glee as he starts his sequel, This Foreign Policy Town.
On the other hand.... if you read to the end of Byers' story, it doesn't seem like the spin had much effect:
Leading minds on foreign policy were unforgiving, and panned the speech as contradictory and inconsequential.
“He should have postponed,” Goldberg told POLITICO. “Basically he said — our military is ready; John Kerry is going to Geneva, and poison gas is very bad.”
In an email to POLITICO, Rothkopf called the speech “a string of his recent arguments culminating in a punt.”
“It seems clear he wishes this would all go away and that he is very uncomfortable with the spot he finds himself,” Rothkopf wrote. “The thing he feels strongest about is his own ambivalence.”
Ceding a little ground, though not much, Phillip Gourevitch, the New Yorker staff writer, tweeted: “That it’s pure rhetoric w/no substance may be understandable w/confused state of play but it clarifies nothing.” He added: “Obama did make strong case for likely ineffectiveness of action in Syria, while declaring its necessity.”
So, to sum up: XKCD is right about social media.
Am I missing anything?
As the congressional debate on Syria plods along, Politico's Alex Isenstadt and James Hohmann observe that some formerly hawkish Republicans are sounding a very different tune now:
Of all the unexpected turns in the Syria debate, one stands out most: The GOP, the party of a muscular national defense, has gone the way of the dove.
A decade after leading the country into Iraq and Afghanistan, Republicans have little appetite or energy for a strike aimed at punishing Bashar Assad for allegedly gassing his own people. To the contrary, many of the party’s lawmakers are lining up to sink President Barack Obama’s war authorization vote.
Of the 279 Republicans currently in the House and Senate, 83 were also serving in October 2002. All of them voted to give George W. Bush authorization to invade Iraq. Now, just 10 of those 83 have come out in support of striking Syria. Most of the others have expressed serious reservations or are leaning against voting for the authorization.
Isenstadt and Hohmann go on to note that some Democrats have performed the reverse-180, but more Republicans have shifted from hawk to dove.
Look, this isn't rocket science: the opposition party will always be more skeptical of administration policy. Throw in a nation that's pretty sick of war and pretty hostile to taking action in Syria and this is a no-brainer position to adopt for most Republicans. This is particularly true since I suspect enough Republicans will join with most Democrats to give the administration the necessary authorization.
So, for most Republicans, this is a costless vote against a not-terribly-popular president for a not terribly-popular or not-terribly-well-articulated or not-terribly-well-thought-out policy action that -- if everything breaks just right -- could end as well as Bosnia. As I said, this isn't rocket science.
Old foreign policy hands will likely cluck a bit and disparage the shifting ideologies of GOP members of Congress in the name of political self-interest. To which I say: hooray for political self-interest!! It's not like the status quo in GOP foreign policy thinking had been serving them all that well over the past few years. This isn't to say that I agree with the GOP on this issue, but for once, the American political system appears to be working as intended.
Am I missing anything?
President Obama directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of President Bashar Al-Assad has been moving troops and equipment used to employ chemical weapons while Congress debates whether to authorize military action.
Mr. Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the “degrade” part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria— to “deter and degrade” Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action on Saturday to seek Congressional approval of his plan.
For the first time, the administration is talking about using American and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. There is a renewed push to get other NATO forces involved....
Mr. Obama’s instructions come as most members of Congress who are even willing to consider voting in favor of a military response to a chemical attack are insisting on strict limits on the duration and type of the strikes carried out by the United States, while a small number of Republicans are telling the White House that the current plans are not muscular enough to destabilize the Assad government.
Senior officials are aware of the competing imperatives they now confront — that to win even the fight on Capitol Hill, they will have to accept restrictions on the military response, and in order to make the strike meaningful they must expand its scope.
“They are being pulled in two different directions,” a senior foreign official involved in the discussions said Thursday. “The worst outcome would be to come out of this bruising battle with Congress and conduct a military action that made little difference.”
Officials cautioned that the options for an increased American strike would still be limited — “think incremental increase, not exponential,” said one official — but would be intended to inflict significant damage on the Syrian military.
There are two ways of thinking about this story. The positive spin is that this is the DoD's equivalent of the Federal Reserve's "forward guidance" -- a signal to both allies and adversaries alike about what will come to pass. In monetary policy, forward guidance is a way of crafting stable expectations about the future -- not that this works all the time. In this case, one wonders whether these leaks are trying to signal to Assad and his great power benefactors the wisdom of sitting down and negotiating with the rebels rather than trying to grind out a military victory. At the risk of setting off the Bad Analogy Detector, this is akin to how both Bosnia and Kosovo played out -- and if the Syria outcome matched either of those cases, the after-action assessment would be that this would be a foreign policy triumph for the U.S. and A Good Thing for Syrians.
The negative spin is that, contrary to the Times reportage, Obama's decision to go to Congress is actually leading him to expand rather than contract his policy aims. It had seemed that the initial goal of this operation was to deter Assad (and other possible chemical weapons users) into not using WMDs again. Going to Congress for a few symbolic missile strikes, however, seems like an awful lot of political capital to expend for very little return. In order to curry favor with both the liberal internationalists on the Democratic side and the neoconservative sympathizers on the GOP side, the administration needs to expand its goals to include intervening in the Syrian civil war. Which means this is less about the norm against chemical weapons use and more about trying to bring an end to Syria's conflict. That's a noble cause -- I'm just not sure if it's doable.
We're in the middle of Rosh Hashanah, and at services yesterday, I noted that the siddur at my synagogue had a petty apt prayer that seems worth repeating here:
We pray for all who hold positions of leadership and responsibility in our national life. Let Your blessing rest upon them, and make them responsive to Your will, so that our nation may be to the world an example of justice and compassion.
[You're resorting to prayer?!--ed. Given how this Syria debate is playing out, yes, and given my updated Bayesian priors on how well the United States executes foreign policy in the Middle East, you're damned right I'm resorting to prayer.]
Your humble blogger is heading off on a family vacation for the next week or so to a mysterious land of patchy cellular coverage and erratic Internet access. So blogging might be inadvertently light for a spell.
Before I go, however, I have a modest proposal: a lot of the foreign-policy community in Washington should also go on vacation. And perhaps not come back for a decent stretch.
I suggest a community-wide vacation because, right now, a lot of them are writing a lot of nonsense. The combination of perceived U.S. inaction on Syria and Snowden is leading to a lot of silly talk about how Russia is back and China is back and the United States can't do anything anymore and everything is going to hell in a handbasket.
I don't mean to go on a rant here, but this is just so much bulls**t.
OK, it's not all that. Advocates of humanitarian intervention are justifiably upset about inaction on Syria -- and they should be even more upset if the administration is actually doing what I think it's doing in Syria.
That said, there's not much that's new in these laments. China and Russia are opposing U.S. interests? Well, blow me down!! I haven't seen that kind of activity since … since … every year for the last decade. There's nothing new here.
One could try to argue that these countries are now relatively more powerful than they used to be. That's likely true for China, but less so for Russia. In fact, the energy developments of the past five years have hit at a core pillar of Russia's great-power status. Demographics will erode every other pillar. As for Russia's investments in propping up Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, it's worth remembering that the Russian Federation is playing defense here. Three years ago, Moscow had a stable ally in Damascus. Now it has a very unstable one that is more beholden to Iran and Hezbollah. This does not look like forward progress to me. Put bluntly, if Russia really is America's No. 1 geopolitical foe, then America's geopolitical position is friggin' awesome.
Of course, it isn't true - China is a far more powerful country than Russia. That said, China also has its own demographic and security challenges -- both of which pale besides the daunting economic reform project the current leadership appears hellbent on pursuing. The Chinese leadership is walking a tightrope between not allowing its financial system to fail and enacting reforms that rein in the shadow banking system. China is looking inward even more than the United States at this point.
As for the United States? Every time someone says U.S. power is diminished, I keep stumbling across charts like these, or data points like this one, that suggest that the foundations of American power are relatively stronger now than they were five years ago. None of this is to argue that the Obama administration's foreign-policy record is error-free. But the administration has gotten One Big Thing right -- the rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific. And a lot of the griping this week is coming from people whose foreign-policy worldview rises and sets with the Middle East.
I like it when America's foreign-policy community is operating in a less panicky mode. So perhaps a vacation is in order for everyone.
Hey, here's some light reading to suggest: I have the cover story in this week's Spectator magazine about … the renaissance in American economic power. Here's how it closes:
Plenty of dangers lie ahead. The United States could get trapped into another draining war in the Middle East. Partisan bickering in Washington could block any structural budget reforms and cripple America’s long-term finances. A premature end to quantitative easing, or another eurozone crisis, could induce another setback. But the United States has a remarkable ability to right its own ship. That ability, in and of itself, is one of the sources of its enduring power.
Read the whole thing. While on vacation.
In the New York Times, Mark Landler and Peter Baker review Barack Obama's personal diplomacy with other world leaders, and find it wanting. They make a pretty interesting case:
While tangling with the leaders of two cold war antagonists of the United States is nothing new, the two bruising encounters in such a short span underscore a hard reality for Mr. Obama as he heads deeper into a second term that may come to be dominated by foreign policy: his main counterparts on the world stage are not his friends, and they make little attempt to cloak their disagreements in diplomatic niceties.
Even his friends are not always so friendly. On Wednesday, for example, the president is to meet in Berlin with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who has invited him to deliver a speech at the Brandenburg Gate. But Ms. Merkel is also expected to press Mr. Obama about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, which offend privacy-minded Germans.
For all of his effort to cultivate personal ties with foreign counterparts over the last four and a half years — the informal “shirt-sleeves summit” with Mr. Xi was supposed to nurture a friendly rapport that White House aides acknowledge did not materialize — Mr. Obama has complicated relationships with some, and has bet on others who came to disappoint him....
Mr. Obama differs from his most recent predecessors, who made personal relationships with leaders the cornerstone of their foreign policies. The first George Bush moved gracefully in foreign capitals, while Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush related to fellow leaders as politicians, trying to understand their pressures and constituencies.
“That’s not President Obama’s style,” said James B. Steinberg, Mr. Clinton’s deputy national security adviser and Mr. Obama’s deputy secretary of state.
Such relationships matter, Mr. Steinberg said, but they are not the driving force behind a leader’s decision making. “They do what they believe is in the interest of their country and they’re not going to do it differently just because they have a good relationship with another leader,” he said.
It is to Landler and Baker's credit that they provide the appropriate context to this phenomenon in their story. Personal relationships -- especially with rival great powers -- don't count for a hell of a lot. As they note, "Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush forged strong partnerships with their Russian counterparts, Boris Yeltsin and Mr. Putin, respectively. But even that did not prevent ruptures over NATO military action in Kosovo and the Russian war in Georgia." So even if the Obama administration did not go the extra mile in wooing the leader of China, for example, it likely wouldn't have mattered much.
So can we leave it at the "nations have 'only permanent interests'" conclusion? I fear neither life nor world politics is that simple. My concern reading Baker and Landler's story isn't about the lack of warmth between Obama and great power rivals, but rather the lack of warmth between Obama and U.S. allies. The story notes that relations with French president Francoise Hollande are strained for a number of reasons. Obama has made committed numerous small faux-pas with his British counterparts as well. Landler and Baker fail to identify any personal relationship between Obama and an allied leader that is particularly warm (though Chuck Todd suggests Angela Merkel). The only "warm personal relationship" the press has identified between Obama and a current world leader is Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Unfortunately, as Indian foreign policy analysts like to stress, the United States is not their ally and New Delhi is not ready for prime time on the global diplomatic stage anyway.
It would seem that Obama has a deficit of close personal allies and confidantes at G-20 meetings or other confabs. Which isn't exactly a big deal but seems a bit problematic. Sometimes advice from staffers, underlings, or even cabinet members can be dismissed in a way that advice from a nominal peer cannot. All leaders -- especially powerful ones -- are served well by a coterie of allies who can speak truth to power.
That's how things should work in theory to correct misperceptions and the like. In practice, of course, it's worth remembering that Tony Blair was both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush's closest friend on the global stage. Those friendships produced... mixed results. So maybe, in the end, this is a big bunch of nothing.
What do you think?
Red line!! RED LINE!!! RED LINE!!!!:
The Obama administration, concluding that the troops of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria have used chemical weapons against rebel forces in his country’s civil war, has decided to begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition, according to American officials.
The officials held out the possibility that the assistance, coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency, could include antitank weapons, but they said that for now supplying the antiaircraft weapons that rebel commanders have said they sorely need is not under consideration....
Some senior State Department officials have been pushing for a more aggressive military response, including airstrikes to hit the primary landing strips in Syria that the Assad government uses to launch the chemical weapons attacks, ferry troops around the country and receive shipments of arms from Iran.
But White House officials remain wary, and on Thursday Benjamin J. Rhodes, one of Mr. Obama’s top foreign policy advisers, all but ruled out the imposition of a no-fly zone and indicated that no decision had been made on other military actions....
[T]he president’s caution has frayed relations with important American allies in the Middle East that have privately described the White House strategy as feckless. Saudi Arabia and Jordan recently cut the United States out of a new rebel training program, a decision that American officials said came from the belief in Riyadh and Amman that the United States has only a tepid commitment to supporting rebel groups....
A flurry of high-level meetings in Washington this week underscored the divisions within the Obama administration about what actions to take in Syria to stop the fighting. The meetings were hastily arranged after Mr. Assad’s troops, joined by thousands of fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, claimed the strategic city of Qusayr and raised fears in Washington that large parts of the rebellion could be on the verge of collapse....
Until now, the American support to Syrian rebels has been limited to food rations and medical kits, although the Obama administration has quietly encouraged Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to ship weapons into the country. The limited assistance that the Obama administration is now promising is likely to be dwarfed by the help that American officials said Iran provides to Mr. Assad’s government.
Naturally, this will feed the "return of the liberal hawks" meme that's spreading in some quarters. Other commentators will gnash their teeth or decry that this is the first ill-considered step towards dragging the United States into another Middle Eastern war.
To your humble blogger, this is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that's been going on for the past two years. To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible. This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished.... at an appalling toll in lives lost.
This policy doesn't require any course correction... so long as rebels are holding their own or winning. A faltering Assad simply forces Iran et al into doubling down and committing even more resources. A faltering rebel movement, on the other hand, does require some external support, lest the Iranians actually win the conflict. In a related matter, arming the rebels also prevents relations with U.S. allies in the region from fraying any further.
So is this the first step towards another U.S.-led war in the region? No. Everything in that Times story, and everything this administration has said and done for the past two years, screams deep reluctance over intervention. Arming the rebels is not the same thing as a no-fly zone or any kind of ground intervention. This is simply the United States engaging in its own form of asymmetric warfare. For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East.
The moment that U.S. armed forces would be required to sustain the balance, the costs of this policy go up dramatically, far outweighing the benefits. So I suspect the Obama administration will continue to pursue all measures short of committing U.S. forces in any way in order to sustain the rebels.
Now let's be clear: to describe this as "morally questionable" would be an understatement. It's a policy that makes me very uncomfortable... until one considers the alternatives. What it's not, however, is a return to liberal hawkery.
So, to conclude: the United States is using a liberal internationalist rubric to cloak a pretty realist policy towards Syria.
Am I missing anything?
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?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.