No president can reasonably be expected to put a ton of political muscle behind a lost cause, and major progress on, say, the Doha round, was pretty clearly a lost cause from the day Obama entered office. In the face of a catastrophic global recession, there was never even the slightest chance of gaining support either at home or abroad for any major trade initiatives, and it's simply not reasonable to expect Obama to put any energy behind it. Not only would it have gone nowhere, it might even have been counterproductive. Better to wait until the global climate provides at least a bit of a tailwind.
Second, this isn't a classroom, where you get an F for not showing up. In politics, you get an F for being counterproductive. Obama hasn't been. He's simply ignored trade as an issue. But he hasn't done any harm, and under the circumstances that's quite possibly about as much as a trade enthusiast could have hoped for.
Avent concurs. He notes that global trade has survived and thrived after the Great Recession, concluding, "The global economy has lived to fight another day, and that's something to appreciate."
These are interesting points, but I fear that Drum and Avent are far too easy in their grading. Rewarding Obama for not making things worse on the trade front is like rewarding him for not invading Pakistan -- kudos for not pursuing a spectacularly bad idea, but really, is that a positive accomplishment? I think not. Or to use another grading analogy -- students can receive an F even if they don't plagiarize.
As for Obama resisting the tides of protectionism, I'll credit the separation of powers a bit more than Drum or Avent. The U.S. political system is arranged to make it very difficult for anyone to change the status quo. Even if Barack Obama wanted to pull the United States out of the World Trade Organization, for example, he likely couldn't have gotten the necessary votes in Congress. The Obama administration has mildly resisted more hawkish member of Congress to "get tough" with China. That's about it in terms of preventing protectionism. When I said Obama had done almost nothing on trade, I wasn't kidding.
If I have a student who barely puts in any work and nevertheless writes great papers, they'll receive a good grade. The outcome matters more as one matriculates. A student who barely puts in any work and has nothing to show for it? F city.
I'm still getting all the cotton out of my head from my Israel sojourn, but what I find striking about the debate is how Middle-East-focused it is. Walt focuses on four key areas: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine. All important hot spots, to be sure -- but shouldn't a good realist be concerned about great power politics? (to be fair, Walt does link to Thomas Wright's intriguing essay in The Diplomat about how the Obama administration is rethinking its China policy).
As a global political economy person with a strong realpoliitik streak, here are the four issues I think should be given the largest weighting in any grading of Obama:
1) Great power politics: This is where Obama deserves his best marks, despite some occasional rocky patches. It's safe to say that relations with Russia have been on the mend for quite some time. Wright is correct to point out the ups and downs with China, but the administration has reacted quite adroitly to China's renewed confidence on the regional and global stage. U.S. relations with key Pacific Rim allies -- South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, India, and even Vietnam if you want to go that far -- have all been trending upwards. China now has to process these events, and whether its desire to throw its weigtht around is worth the price of a balancing strategy. This wasn't how Obama planned things to go with China, but given Beijing's behavior, I think they improvised and adapted quite well in this sphere. GRADE: A-
2) Correcting imbalances in the global economy: The last G-20 summit in Toronto demonstrated how poorly the Obama administration has done on this front. The administration went into that summit arguing that some countries need to continue priming the fiscal pump. The resulting communique did not reflect that assessment. Deficit hawks have won the war of ideas here -- which would be fine if surplus countries like Germany and China balanced that approach by consuming more. They ain't going in that direction, however. There's been minimal progress on yuan revaluation, and real foot-dragging in the Eurozone about fixing what ails that region. Given the high hopes Obama administration put on the G-20, this has been a thoroughly disapponting performance to date: GRADE: D
3) Trade: Blech. Let me repeat that -- blech. I understand that the administration is on barren political terrain when dealing with this issue. Still, the phrase "Obama administration's trade agenda" is pretty much a contradiction in terms at this point. The Doha round is dead, and the only trade issue that has the support of policy principals is the National Export Initiative -- and you know what I think about that. Unlike the other three issues, the administration hasn't even bothered to put much effort onto this one -- though the recent pledge to get the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) ratified is promising. GRADE: F
4) Nuclear nonproliferation: Even an IPE guy like myself appreciates the virtues of a world in which nuclear weapons are heavily regulated. The Obama administration's performance in this area has been mixed. START has been negotiated but not ratified, and the Nuclear Safety Summit seems like it was a success. Iran and North Korea seem unbowed, but at the same time the Obama administration has reinforced the multilateral arrangements designed to contain both countries (though this is interesting). At the same time, you can't just grade for effort at this level, and the results have been disappointing with both countries. There is also something of a strategic mismatch between the Obama administration's nuclwar ambitions and grand strategy ambitions. GRADE: B-
All grades are incomplete at this stage, but looking above, I'm more than a bit troubled. I don't see the rebalancing or trade grades impriving anytime soon. If Obamas was one of my advisees, I'd probably have him stop by my office hours for a friendly but firm chat at this juncture.
Question to readers: what important issues did Walt, Lynch, and I overlook ? And how would you grade Obama?
My dear Mr. Schweizer,
Of course it’s legitimate to ask questions about supporting evidence for stories we post on Big Peace. But to call Big Peace ”unadulterated horses***t”? Is that your habit when you believe an opponent lacks evidence? Why not simply ask some questions?....
I do find it curious that you argue since Soros is “at best ambivalent and at worst disappointed” with Obama that means he doesn’t have much influence. Surely you are politically sophisticated enough to know that there is a difference between the two. You may be too young to recall (I’m not saying this as a slight) but conservatives were disappointed with Reagan early on in his first term because they felt he didn’t go far enough. Does that mean conservatives lacked influence on Reagan? Ditto for the administration of George W. Bush. Read Kissinger’s memoirs and you will find plenty of examples of his disappointment with Richard Nixon.
You might not be persuaded–that’s fine. But why condemn an entire website?....
I can’t help but peek at your letter to Mr. Moriarty and note your suggestion that you would welcome a whole new set of critical readers to your blog. Do you actually mean it? Or is this wordplay?
To answer your queries:
1) To be honest, if someone writes a post long on accusations and conspiracies but short on supporting evidence, yeah, I'm pretty much gonna call it unadulterated horses**t. In neither Moriarty's initial post, nor in his follow-up letter does he provide a scintilla of evidence to back up his factual claims. If you go by Harry Frankfurt's definition of bulls**t, Moriarty's post appears to fit the bill. According to Frankfurt, if someone simply doesn't care whether what they are saying is true or false, then they're generating bulls**t. Based on Moriarty's output to date, it qualifies as bulls**t. I could debate the fine distinctions between horses**t and bulls**t fr hours, but for these purposes, the two terms are one and the same.
2) Am I condemning the entire Big Peace website? No. if you re-read my original post, I said the entire site would deserve this appellation if Moriarty's writings were characteristic of the rest of Big Peace's output. Consider this a warning shot across the bow - if your job is to edit Big Peace's output, then I think you erred in not using a firmer editorial hand towards Mr. Moriarty.
3) With regard to influence, perhaps we have a problem with terminology. I think you're confusing "influence" with the Svengali-like properties that Moriarty seems to ascribe to Soros. He repeatedly used the Kissinger/Nixon parallel, and that simply doesn't hold up. Kissinger had daily access to Nixon - I hope you'll agree that Soros has had nowhere near that much communication with Obama. Has Soros influenced Obama? Probably, but one could argue that conservatives have influenced policy outcomes more. Without implacable GOP opposition, for example, I'm quite confident that the February 2009 stimulus package would have topped $1 trillion. The difference is that Moriarty characterized Soros as Obama's political sherpa - and, again, to repeat, there is zero evidence that this is the case.
4) On whether I "would welcome a whole new set of critical readers" -- please, scan through my comments on a garden-variety post. I have plenty of readers who disagree with me -- in fact, I take great pride in having the most contrarian group of readers in the foreign policy blogosphere. So yes, criticism is always welcomed.
I'll be sure to check Big Peace on the site from time to time to see if something link-worthy comes up. Until then, welcome to the foreign policy blogosphere:
Daniel W. Drezner
Dear Peter Schweizer,
First off, thanks for writing. Believe it or not, this is precisely this kind of exchange I was hoping for when I called Big Peace "unadulterated horses**t" in my last post. I respect and admire writers who are not put off by a healthy use of Anglo-Saxon terms, as opposed to Latin, academic-y obfuscation.
You raise some issues with my post, so let me respond in kind.
First, you note that, "Drezner seems to have made a habit of coming to Mr. Soros’ defense," linking to a blog post from a few years back. I wonder, however, if you read the entire blog post. Here's how I closed it:
I have very mixed feelings on Soros. The man is and was a first-rate philanthropist. That, said, having read The Bubble of American Diplomacy, I've concluded that Soros is a political loon of the first order. It is ridiculously easy to attack George Soros without ever discussing his religion.
....while Blankely was, to repeat, clearly way out of bounds, the Republican decision to go on the offensive against Soros is perfectly legit. He's dedicated large sums of money to attacking the Bush administration. According to the Post story, "Soros has said in interviews that he has concluded that ousting Bush is the most important thing he can do with his life." The trigger for the Hannity & Colmes discussion was Soros' statement comparing the Abu Ghraib prison scandal to the 9/11 attacks. In Bubble of American Diplomacy, Soros admits that he's become "quite rabid" in his political views. He's entered the political arena -- which means he's opened himself to political attacks.
Trust me when I say that this post didn't win me many friends on the left. If this amounts to me "sucking up to a billionaire philanthropist," as you put it, well then, gee, I really stink at it. If you think this still amounts to "sucking up," then I'm afraid we're going to have to agree to disagree. To reiterate -- going after Soros' ideas is just fine. I'm sure you'll agree, however, that going after him for being a Jew is both inflammatory and extraneous.
You then go on to argue that Soros has influenced Obama, and provide links to stories in the Wall Street Journal and Time to back up this point. Hey, this is great! You have linked citations to back up your argument!! That's what I like to see when an online article makes a non-obvious factual assertion. Now go back and re-read Moriarty's column -- did he have any hyperlinks backing up any of his assertions linking Soros to Obama? No? Wouldn't some links on that point have been useful? Indeed, dare I suggest that pointing out the need for evidence is kind of an editor's job?
As for your cites, I'm afraid thay're not convincing at all. Both of them are from November 2008, when there was speculation over who would influence then-President-elect Obama. I haven't seen much since then about Soros' direct influence over Obama. Soros is at best ambivalent and at worst disappointed with Obama's performance. On the issue in which Soros has been the most outspoken -- financial regulation -- Obama willfully ignored Soros' recommendations. So I'm not seeing a lot of influence here. I'm seeing nothing that even approximates the overt and tight relationship that Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon shared during the latter's administration (which is what Moriarity stated in his essay).
I could be persuaded otherwise on this point -- Obama and Soros probably do have some kind of relationship. But I need to see the evidence, the unvarnished truth, if you will. If you have any, please provide it and link to it.
Finally, you sarcastically note my impending zombie book, concluding, "Wow. Serious stuff. Scholarly material. Certainly not horses***t."
Well played, sir!! Yes, I am indeed writing a semi-serious book on zombies and world politics. I'm not sure I follow your line of argumentation, however. Are you suggesting that writing on something frivolous (but pedagogically useful) like zombies somehow diminishes my ability to analyze politics and international relations? If that's your argument, then you're impeaching an awful lot of writers and analysts who dabble in hobbies like fiction-writing on the side. It's a good thing you haven't done anything so frivolous as write fiction. Oh, wait....
If you want to directly critique my writings on international relations, please feel free -- there's a lot of them. Implying that the two months I spent writing Theories of International Politics and Zombies disqualifies me from more serious musings is... wait for it.... unadulterated horses**t.
Daniel W. Drezner
Dear Michael Moriarty.
First off, again, thanks for writing. Second, let me just say that you're a highly underrated actor. Courage Under Fire is one of my favorite post-Cold War films, and I thought you were terrific in it -- an understated performance that deserved Academy Award recognition.
Now, to the matter at hand. You write in your response:
You say, “Seriously, I see no evidence of Soros’ alleged influence over Obama, nor do I see any evidence of Soros’ desire to bring down the United States.”
Dragging the United States, kicking and screaming, into the economic quick sands of not only Far Left false promises but, for example, handing the American Gulf oil market over to Brazil’s own predominantly offshore drilling is not a recent headline … of sorts?
Isn’t Mr. Soros a close friend of Brazil’s leadership and an actual investor in Brazil’s oil explorations?
Forgive my hyperbole, but isn’t a moratorium on offshore oil drilling, imposed by an American, Presidential friend of George Soros going to help Brazil … and therefore George Soros … EXPONENTIALLY?
But then again, you can’t even see a shred of “influence” from Soros to Obama (emphases in original).
Now I assume you are referring to this allegation with respect to Soros' investments in Petrobas and the links between Petrobas and the Obama administration. I'm not sure, however, since once again, you failed to provide any links to back up your arguments. On this matter, I suggest you peruse this FactCheck.org post about the issue, as well as this Bloomberg story about Soros' dealings with Petrobras.
There's a phrase that I like a lot: correlation does not equal causation. It is probably true that a moratorium on offshore drilling would help Petrobas, which would in turn help Soros. I seriously doubt, however, that this is what led to the moratorium in the first place, just as I find most conspiracy theories implausible. The moratorium does not appear to reflect Obama's long-term preferences on the issue, given that he indicated he was open to drilling during the 2008 campaign and then announced an expansion of such drilling just a few months before the BP imbroglio. Finally, a six-month delay is not really going to enrich Petrobas all that much.
So no, the word "exponentially" doesn't hold up here. Neither does the comparison you made between Nixon/Kissinger and Obama/Soros in your initial post -- those two pairings are apples and oranges, and there's nothing from your original post nor your follow-up letter that is persuasive on that point.
You also write, "The rumor I’ve received about your publication, Foreign Policy, is that it is not just Left but Far Left." Hey, why listen to received rumor? Why not go for the unvarnished truth? Check out Foreign Policy for yourself!! I'm sure there will be plenty of content that you and your Big Peace readers will find to be on the left. On the other hand, distinguished conservative writers ranging from Robert Kagan to Walter Russell Mead to Dov Zakheim have published here. Even some less distinguished conservatives, like Peter Schweizer's business partner Marc A. Thiessen, have found their way onto Foreign Policy. Read the whole thing!!
One final, friendly suggestion from one writer to another: bolded and italicized fonts have their place in making a point. But bolded and italicized text, in and of itself, does not constitute evidence.
Do keep checking out my blog -- I, for one, would welcome a whole new set of critical readers.
Daniel W. Drezner
Earlier this month media mogul Andrew Breitbart (yes, that Andrew Breitbart) launched Big Peace as his latest website. Big Peace's editor, Peter Schweizer, explained the founding principles of the enterprise in his introductory post:
The word “peace” has been hijacked by those who don’t believe in peace, but rather believe in appeasement. We intend to take it back. Peace comes from strength. Peace comes from freedom. More people were killed in the 20th century by their own governments than due to any war. Peace is a word devoid of meaning unless it includes liberty....
We firmly believe in interactive journalism. National security issues are too important to kept to the “professional” journalists. (Notice the quotes.)
The commitment of the Big Peace Team is to give you the unvarnished truth (emphasis added)
Excellent, I thought. More interest in international relations, regardless of partisanship, promotes a more vigorous marketplace of ideas. With a commitment to the unvarnished truth, I was hopeful that Big Peace would shine a light on some unexplored areas of the foreign policy establishment.
After reading Michael Moriarty's (yes, that Michael Moriarty) explication of the real power behind the Obama administration, however, I have some doubts as to whether Schweizer and I think that "the unvarnished truth" mean the same thing. Here are some snippets of Moriarty's essay, "The Soros/Obama Puppet Show":
From Dr. Henry Kissinger of Harvard to the honorary degree which President Barack Obama, also of Harvard, received from, of all things, a Catholic university, Notre Dame, the fruit off of the tree of such enlightened despotism, the harvest from their lofty efforts has one common denominator: thuggery.
The Kissinger/Nixon Presidency bullied its way to eventual defeat in the eyes of the American people.
Soros/Obama is repeating the same formula but from another, much Redder and very Islamic corner of the very Bipartisan, Kissingerized and Progressive New World Order....
The Soros’ obvious and undeniable objective, after having “broken the Bank of England,” is to teach Barack Obama how to destroy the United States of America as we have known it. He’s off to a very good start with his disciple and philosophic doppelganger.
There is, of course, a bizarre psychological syndrome in a Jewish Godfather and his blatant exploitation of a decidedly pro-Islamic politician with the name of Barack Hussein Obama.
Karl Marx and his Communist philosophy explains it all. Marx was Jewish as well … and perversely anti-Semitic....
To short or bet against the prosperity of your fellow man is precisely the mentality of all three major madmen of the 20th Century: Hitler, Stalin and Mao.
Life is not a horse race … but you can’t tell George Soros that.
Because Hitler was destroyed in World War II but both Stalin and Mao thrived, George Soros and, unfortunately, the likes of Henry Kissinger and many in the conservative corner of America, see a Marxist New World Order as “scientifically inevitable”.
“There is nothing Man can do to stop it!” “We will bury you!” as the Soviet Nikita Khrushchev prophesied.
Apparently Soros and Obama are here to throw the last few shovels filled with dirt into the graves envisioned by Khrushchev that will hold American bodies....
Why don’t all the citizens of America have blood shooting out of their eyes in rage?!
We are actually 1930’s Europe....
Now the new Kissinger is George Soros.
Soros puppeteers Obama in the same way “Dr. K” ultimately led Nixon to his utter humiliation.
Let’s hope to see the same outcome for the Soros/Obama Puppet Show that befell Kissinger/Nixon.
There's stuff I cut out about Marx and an odd Brazilian side note, but you get the gist. Or maybe you don't, because I'm not completely sure I understand what the man is saying. As near as I can figure, Moriarty is asserting the following:
1. George Soros is Obama's Henry Kissinger;
2. George Soros is a Jewish, Marxist, radical lefty who, because he shorts assets, wants to bring down the United States.
If Moriarty could make those charges stick, well, pass me the popcorn, because that would be some interesting news. However, Moriarty provides zero, repeat, zero facts to back up these claims. Seriously, I see no evidence of Soros' alleged influence over Obama, nor do I see any evidence of Soros' desire to bring down the United States. In the end, this is an incoherent screed by a former famous person in which a lot of false comparisons are made and no truth is provided.
Perhaps Moriarty's essay is uncharacteristic of the output on Big Peace. If not, I must come to the conclusion that Big Peace has gone Vizzini on the phrase "unvarnished truth." I think of that term to mean "the speaking of unpleasant, inconvenient, but nevertheless iron-clad truths." Big Peace appears to interpret that term to mean "unadulterated innuendo and horses**t."
Jesse Lichtenstein's New York Times Magazine profile of the State Department's Jared Cohen and Alec Ross does a fine job of discussing the pros and cons of government efforts to use Twitter, Facebook et al in order to promote U.S. interests. FP's Evgeny Morozov is quoted liberally as the voice of skepticism.
What I found particularly interesting was the way that this kind of advocacy has turned Cohen and Ross into Internet celebrities:
On Twitter, Cohen, who is 28, and Ross, who is 38, are among the most followed of anyone working for the U.S. government, coming in third and fourth after Barack Obama and John McCain. This didn’t happen by chance. Their Twitter posts have become an integral part of a new State Department effort to bring diplomacy into the digital age, by using widely available technologies to reach out to citizens, companies and other nonstate actors. Ross and Cohen’s style of engagement — perhaps best described as a cross between social-networking culture and foreign-policy arcana — reflects the hybrid nature of this approach. Two of Cohen’s recent posts were, in order: “Guinea holds first free election since 1958” and “Yes, the season premier [sic] of Entourage is tonight, soooo excited!” This offhand mix of pop and politics has on occasion raised eyebrows and a few hackles (writing about a frappucino during a rare diplomatic mission to Syria; a trip with Ashton Kutcher to Russia in February), yet, together, Ross and Cohen have formed an unlikely and unprecedented team in the State Department. They are the public face of a cause with an important-sounding name: 21st-century statecraft....
One apparent paradox of 21st-century statecraft is that while new technologies have theoretically given a voice to the anonymous and formerly powerless (all you need is a camera phone to start a movement), they have also fashioned erstwhile faceless bureaucrats into public figures. Ross and Cohen have a kind of celebrity in their world — and celebrity in the Twitter age requires a surfeit of disclosure. Several senior members of the State Department with whom I spoke could not understand why anyone would want to read microdispatches from a trip to Twitter or, worse, from a State Department staff member’s child’s basketball game. But Secretary Clinton seemed neither troubled nor bewildered. “I think it’s to some extent pervasive now,” she told me in March. “It would be odd if the entire world were moving in that direction and the State Department were not.” Half of humanity is under 30, she reminded me. “Much of that world doesn’t really know as much as you might think about American values. One of the ways of breaking through is by having people who are doing the work of our government be human beings, be personalized, be relatable.”
I'm really not sure if network diplomacy will work, but these grafs highlight a looming problem even if it does work. Web 2.0 users succeed when they generate idiosyncratic, personalized content. Governments, on the other hand, are team operations, designed to harness different organizations into a common message. Ross and Cohen are clearly smart, talented people, but at some point they or someone like them in the government will commit an Octavia Nasr -- and what then?
Question to readers: is it possible for foreign policymakers to be good at Web 2.0 and good at traditional bureaucratese?
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Here's a conundrum I don't entirely understand. Maybe someone can explain it to me.
1. For the past year or so, we've seen a series of stories detailing the Obama administration's foreign policy process. The signal theme of these stories is that the White House is large and in charge of this process. While Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Gates are clearly influential, Obama and the Executive Office of the President are clearly the central node, disciplining everyone else into a single policy position.
2. The description of U.S. foreign policy towards Afghanistan to come out of the McChrystal imbroglio is one of serious bureaucratic wrangling, a Pentagon resistant to civilian oversight, petty carping, and significant press leakage.
How can both of these narratives be correct?
It's possible that David Brooks is correct and this is simply a case of garden-variety kvetching gone public. Or it's possible that Obama's strategic communications shop is too good at their job, exaggerating an orderly process that is fundamentally disorderly.
Which is it? Provide your answer to this paradox in the comments. Your humble blogger will ponder this question while on a small vacation in a
zombie-free quiet undisclosed locale.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Hmmm.... which magazine should I peruse online this AM.... maybe TNR? The National Interest? Nah, I'm not in the mood for deep thinking. I'll just look at Rolling Stone, that won't take much intellectual heavy lifting.... oh, look, a profile of General McChrystal.... hmmm.... um.... holy cats.
Since everyone and their mother has their take on this
Mongolian clusterf**k imbroglio already, I'm not going to bother linking to the rest of the blogosphere. Instead, just a few measured and a few off the cuff reactions:
1. Doris Kearns Goodwin makes the case in today's New York Times that Obama doesn't have to fire McChrystal, pointing out that Union General George McClellan was far ruder to Lincoln, and yet was not fired. This is historically true, but I'm not sure it's really the best example. To put it gently, McClellan was a lousy, timid general -- by letting him stay on, Lincoln accomplished little but to prolong the war.
2. I find myself in agreement with Tom Donnelly and William Kristol:
McChrystal should not be the only one to go. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and “AfPak” czar Richard Holbrooke should likewise either submit their resignations or be fired by President Obama. Vice President Biden and his surrogates should be told to sit down and be quiet, to stop fighting policy battles in the press. The administration's "team of rivals" approach is producing only rivalry.
They're right (see also David Ignatius). McChrystal did himself no favors in the RS article, but he's hardly the only Afghan policy heavyweight to be tarnished by the essay. Eikenberry poisoned the well with his press leaks last year, and Holbrooke is, well, Holbrooke. A clean sweep might be the best move Obama could make.
3) Speaking of neoconservatives, it's worth noting that, contra Josh Rogin's take, GOP policy wonks are reacting the way you would expect a loyal opposition to react. That is to say, sure, they're making hay of the problems with the Afghan strategy, but they're also quite firm in saying that Obama should dire McChrystal. See Kristol, Eliot Cohen, John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham.
This should not be terribly surprising. Neoconservatives have been pretty clear all along about civilian control of the military, and McChrystal's gaffes cut right to the heart of this issue.
4) One final point: beyond the descriptions of McChrystal and his aides acting like jackasses in Paris, the RS article was of little use. It presented a slanted portrait of COIN and it's advocates, and seemed determined to paint McChrystal in the worst light possible. As Blake Hounshell observed, it failed to note that at this stage it's impossible to evaluate the COIN strategy, because these approaches tend to have "darkest before the dawn" qualities.
What do you think?
Alex Wong/Getty Images
My assessment perfectly mirrors The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's assessment of Earth: mostly harmless.
First of all, when reading these documents, you need to separate the parts that seem really important from the parts that seem.... boilerplate. For example, consider this laughably overtaken-by-events pledge:
Effectively Manage Emergencies: We are building our capability to prepare for disasters to reduce or eliminate long-term effects to people and their property from hazards and to respond to and recover from major incidents. To improve our preparedness, we are integrating domestic all hazards planning at all levels of government and building key capabilities to respond to emergencies. We continue to collaborate with communities to ensure preparedness efforts are integrated at all levels of government with the private and nonprofit sectors. We are investing in operational capabilities and equipment, and improving the reliability and interoperability of communications systems for first responders. We are encouraging domestic regional planning and integrated preparedness programs and will encourage government at all levels to engage in long-term recovery planning. It is critical that we continually test and improve plans using exercises that are realistic in scenario and consequences.
Planning integration!! Community collaboration!! More integration!! Hey, that's killer material in the NSS. It's a good thing this stuff is being done to prepare for a real emergency. Oh, wait....
As to the portions that matter: it's not that bad. In contrast to some previous strategy documents, this NSS is an actual strategy rather than a laundry list of regions and countries. The administration wisely notes the connections between domestic economic vitality and the ability to project and husband power in a complex world. In contrast to a lot of criticism I read, the administration makes a clear distinction between allies (NATO, Japan) and partners (Russia, China). The attitude towards multilateral institutions is appropriately clear-eyed. Al Qaeda is discussed but not to the point of obsession. The strategy could have just quoted John Quincy Adams rather than trying to perfect his prose about promoting democracy abroad by practicing it at home -- but that's picking at nits.
So, most of it is harmless. There are two things that nagged at me after I'd finished it, however.
First, there's a mismatch between the Obama administration's emphasis on retrenchment/"hard choices" and their sincere commitment to eliminating nuclear weapons. From his 2007 Foreign Affairs essay onwards, every major strategy document has emphasized that the administration will "Pursue the Goal of a World Without Nuclear Weapons." This is the part of the NSS with feeling, and the part where the administration has racked up some significant achievements.
The thing is, a retrenchment strategy requires relying on the tools of power that yield the greatest bang for the buck. Nuclear weapons accomplish little as a means of compellence, but they are the best and most cost-effective deterrent capability imaginable. Now, nothing the Obama administration has done to date compromises that deterrent capability. They seem to be moving in that direction, however. Pledging to eliminate nuclear weapons involves investing a lot of diplomatic capital towards a goal that fundamentally contradicts the national interest of the United States.
The second problem is the strictly horatory nature of some of the key NSS planks. There's a lot of "rising fiscal and trade deficits will... necessitate hard choices in the years ahead" kind of talk in the document. There are repeated emphases on getting America's fiscal house in order. Which is great, until we get to the paragraph on how this is going to happen:
Reduce the Deficit: We cannot grow our economy in the long term unless we put the United States back on a sustainable fiscal path. To begin this effort, the Administration has proposed a 3-year freeze in nonsecurity discretionary spending, a new fee on the largest financial services companies to recoup taxpayer losses for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and the closing of tax loopholes and unnecessary subsidies. The Administration has created a bipartisan fiscal commission to suggest further steps for medium-term deficit reduction and will work for fiscally responsible health insurance reform that will bring down the rate of growth in health care costs, a key driver of the country’s fiscal future.
That's it? I was expecting a bit more. True, budget pledges in a National Security Strategy don't count for much, but would it have been so bad to articulate a more detailed vision of our fiscal future? If the administration can pledge to double exports in the next five years, can't it put in a goal for what the debt/GDP ratio will look like by 2015?
Still, on the whole, it's a decent strategy document as these things go.
Mostly harmless. Mostly.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
One of the occupational hazards U.S. foreign policy wonks possess in abundance is the tendency to forget that domestic politics is really important. Regardless of ideology, most members of the foreign policy community despair of how little time the President devotes to foreign affairs -- because he cares about things like "getting re-elected" or "maintaining popular support" or "responding to public opinion."
I'd like to think that I'm at least aware of this failing, and remind myself on a daily basis that Tip O'Neill had a point.
So, with that bias acknowledged, it's still worth pointing out that Barack Obama has foolishly decided to blow off the most dynamic region in the globe -- again:
President Obama canceled his trip to Australia, Indonesia and Guam late Thursday night as oil continued to stream into the Gulf of Mexico in what he has called the worst environmental disaster in American history.
His decision came as officials reported progress containing the oil leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
Mr. Obama is to visit the Gulf Friday to assess the situation and meet with officials responding to the crisis. While the White House statement offered no reason for scratching the Asia trip this time, officials in recent days had grown increasingly convinced that it was untenable for the president to leave the country for a week with the oil spill still unchecked....
This was the second time Mr. Obama has scrubbed the trip to Australia and Indonesia. He was originally scheduled to travel there in March but canceled at the last minute to stay in Washington to lobby for passage of his health care legislation. He also had passed up a trip to Indonesia in connection with a regional summit meeting held in Singapore in November 2009 (emphasis added).
Correct me if I'm wrong, but for the past month President Obama has been in the country, making many, many pronouncements about the oil leak. You know what effect that has had on the spill? Absolutely zero. There is no policy reason whatsoever for Obama to stay in the country because of the spill (at this point, I'm not even sure there's a political reason, but will defer to commenters on that question).
What's particularly frustrating is that Peter Baker's story contains the seeds that contradict Obama's justification for staying in the country:
White House officials said they will not let the focus on the oil spill detract from the rest of the president’s economic, legislative and foreign agenda, pointing out that he still seems likely to sign fiunancial regulation reform by next month, push through his Supreme Court nominee and win sanctions against Iran at the United Nations Security Council.
“The American people don’t elect somebody, I think, that they don’t believe can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, told reporters earlier Thursday. “Sometimes it feels like we walk and chew gum and juggle on a unicycle all at the same time. I get that.”
But, he added, “there’s a whole lot of people working on a whole lot of things in the White House, and we’re able to do more than several things at once.” (emphasis added)
That's great, Bob -- except that there are certain things that only a President can do. Unless he has some engineering expertise that he's been keeping under wraps, there's very little that Obama can do by staying in the countrry to focus on the spill. On the other hand, Obama's comparative advantage has been to help improve U.S. relations with the rest of the world. Australia and Indonesia are vital supporter states, and yet this president has just given them the cold shoulder -- for the second time, remember -- in order to focus on domestic politics.
The Obama administration has dealt with North Korea as best they could, and after some stumbles have moved down the learning curve in handling the China portfolio. Their approach to the rest of the Asia/Pacific region, however, has gone from sclerotic to just plain awful. The United States needs good relations with these countries -- but this administration has plainly revealed its preferences on this issue. If you look at the Obama administration's behavior, in their minds, the Pacific Rim simply doesn't count.
Question to readers: is the Gulf spill such a political crisis that it requires the Obama administration to blow off allies?
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
I'll have a longer reaction to the 2010 National Security Strategy once I've, you know, actually read it. Of course, me needing to read it will not stop commenters from commenting. So fire away.
Through the magic of the search function, here's a short list of what's hot and what's not in the NSS: Here are the number of mentions for the following words:
Al Qa'ida: 21
North Korea: 3
Doha round: 1
The Obama administration has been trying to road-test the National Security Strategy. Last month is was NSC Advisor James Jones' address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy -- which is now remembered more for a politically incorrect joke than anything else.
This weekend it was the president's turn in his commencement address at West Point. Is there anythng of interest to note? Some are focusing on what he said about Iraq (victory + withdrawal of combat troops this year). Let's focus on Obama's bigthink, which I'd label realist internationalism.
Here's the realist sections:
[W]e must first recognize that our strength and influence abroad begins with steps we take at home. We must educate our children to compete in an age where knowledge is capital, and the marketplace is global. We must develop clean energy that can power new industry and unbound us from foreign oil and preserve our planet. We have to pursue science and research that unlocks wonders as unforeseen to us today as the microchip and the surface of the moon were a century ago.
Simply put, American innovation must be the foundation of American power - because at no time in human history has a nation of diminished economic vitality maintained its military and political primacy. And so that means that the civilians among us, as parents and community leaders, elected officials, business leaders, we have a role to play. We cannot leave it to those in uniform to defend this country - we have to make sure that America is building on its strengths....
And so a fundamental part of our strategy for our security has to be America's support for those universal rights that formed the creed of our founding. And we will promote these values above all by living them - through our fidelity to the rule of law and our Constitution, even when it's hard; even when we're being attacked; even when we're in the midst of war.
Seriously, that last paragraph could have been the mash-up version of John Quincy Adams' 1821 July 4th speech.
Here's the internationalist part:
Yes, we are clear-eyed about the shortfalls of our international system. But America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation - we have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice, so nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities and face consequences when they don't.
So we have to shape an international order that can meet the challenges of our generation. We will be steadfast in strengthening those old alliances that have served us so well, including those who will serve by your side in Afghanistan and around the globe. As influence extends to more countries and capitals, we also have to build new partnerships, and shape stronger international standards and institutions.
Now, realism and multilateralism don't go hand in hand terribly well -- here's the key paragraph where Obama tries to link them:
The burdens of this century cannot fall on our soldiers alone. It also cannot fall on American shoulders alone. Our adversaries would like to see America sap its strength by overextending our power. And in the past, we've always had the foresight to avoid acting alone. We were part of the most powerful wartime coalition in human history through World War II. We stitched together a community of free nations and institutions to endure and ultimately prevail during a Cold War.
Essentially, the administration will try to argue that multilateralism serves as a force multiplier, allowing America to extend its reach while burden-sharing with supporters who benefot from an American-led international order.
Does this formulation work? I like the emphasis on internal renewal, and I tend to think that the United States does retrenchment strategies better than most countries. That said, one problem with multilateralism is that burden-sharing often turns into free-riding.
Another p;roblem is that without an animating idea, it's difficult to retain multilateral solidarity. "Multilateralism for multilateralism's sake" doesn't work unless you live in Brussels -- and even then it's a bit dodgy. "All for one, and one for keeping order" has its virtues, but emotionsal resonance isn't one of them.
There has to be a purpose beyond order to rally allies to a cause. We'll see if the Obama team has one when the NSS rolls out.
A persistent conservative critique of U.S. foreign policy at the moment is that the Obama administration treats U.S. allies more harshly than U.S. adversaries. Obama is allegedly treating Israel worse than Iran, India worse than China, Eastern Europe worse than Russia, etc.
Much of this is exaggerated -- the U.S. is not treating Iran better than Israel by any stretch of the imagination. Some of this is an example of Obama's realpolitik-style strategy kicking in more than anything else. Still, the fact that I was able to come up with three examples pretty quickly suggests that maybe conservatives are onto something. What's interesting, however, is that no one mentions Japan in this litany.
This is a bit surprising: Japan is an older ally than any of these other countries, and it's a pretty important country. According to the Financial Times' Mure Dickie and David Pilling, the bilateral relationship with the United States has been fraught with peril as of late:
Tokyo is "struggling" to resolve a dispute over moving a US marine base before a self-imposed May deadline, says Katsuya Okada, Japanese foreign minister.
Mr Okada insisted, in an interview with the Financial Times, that the seven-month-old Democratic party-led government was committed to Japan's alliance with the US and determined to come up with a plan for the Futenma air base on the southern island of Okinawa that would be acceptable to Washington.
However, he said Yukio Hatoyama, DPJ leader and prime minister, was "not confident" that this could be done. He said Japan faced a "very difficult road" in winning approval for a plan to replace a deal to move Futenma from its city centre site to Okinawa's less populated Henoko Bay.
DPJ efforts to move at least some of the functions of Futenma out of Okinawa and the ruling party's call for a "more equal" relationship with the US have sparked concerns in Washington that Japanese commitment to the 50-year-old alliance is weakening....
Why isn't Obama catching flak for this? I reckon there are two reasons:
1) Much of the blame lies legitimately with Japan's Hatoyama government. As the FT story documents, made a fair number of foreign policy blunders.
2) The Obama administration is further to the right than the Hatoyama administration.
My point here is not that this criticism is disingenuous -- it's just awfully convenient that the allies that keep coming up are the ones with conservative parties in power.
And yes, this is a bipartisan thing, too -- back in the day, Democrats assailed the Bush administration for giving the cold shoulder to Gerhard Schroeder, for example. This suggests that the occasional ruffling of allies has less to do with the particular president and more to do with the inherent tension that exists between permanent alliances and the occasional shift in interests (realists tend to prefer the reverse situation).
TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images
Views of the US around the world have improved sharply over the past year, a BBC World Service poll suggests.
For the first time since the annual poll began in 2005, America's influence in the world is now seen as more positive than negative.
The improved scores for the US coincided with Barack Obama becoming president, a BBC correspondent notes.
As in 2009, Germany is viewed most favourably while Iran and Pakistan are seen as the most negative influences.
Nearly 30,000 people in 28 countries were interviewed for the poll, between November 2009 and February 2010.
Now, on the one hand, this is particularly impressive, because the people of the world are in a really sour mood. If you look at the entire report, the United States is the only great power and one of only two countries (South Africa is the other) to record an uptick in positive influence over the past year. This is also fully consistent with other surveys demonstrating an "Obama effect."
On the other hand, it's worth asking whether this boost in U.S. favorability ratings has yielded anything in the way of tangible policy gains. Sullivan avers that:
[I]n trying to defuse as well as defeat Jihadist terror, this kind of profound change could serve America's interests well. The idea that a better reputation abroad is meaningless uplift is foolish. It helps the US leverage its power to greater ends. The more popular the US is, the likelier it is to have a positive impact on other countries' leaders.
There's some truth to this -- otherwise you don't get the largest number of world leaders on American soil since the founding of the United Nations. That said, I do wonder just how much leverage this kind of soft power carries with it. Consider the ability of the U.S. to enact multilateral economic sanctions. The Bush administration, at the depths of its unpopularity, was still able to get the UN Security Council to pass three rounds of sanctions against Iran, as well as measures against North Korea. The Obama administration, despite a serious effort to open a dialogue with Iran, is encountering resistance from China, Brazil, and Turkey in its efforts to craft another round of sanctions.
All else equal, it's better to see these numbers going up. I'm just unsure of how much this translates into usable leverage.
What do you think?
The story of the day, from David Sanger and Thom Shanker:
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has warned in a secret three-page memorandum to top White House officials that the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear capability, according to government officials familiar with the document.
Several officials said the highly classified analysis, written in January to President' Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, came in the midst of an intensifying effort inside the Pentagon, the White House and the intelligence agencies to develop new options for Mr. Obama. They include a set of military alternatives, still under development, to be considered should diplomacy and sanctions fail to force Iran to change course....
One senior official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the memo, described the document as “a wake-up call.” But White House officials dispute that view, insisting that for 15 months they had been conducting detailed planning for many possible outcomes regarding Iran's nuclear program.
In an interview on Friday, General Jones declined to speak about the memorandum. But he said: “On Iran, we are doing what we said we were going to do. The fact that we don’t announce publicly our entire strategy for the world to see doesn’t mean we don’t have a strategy that anticipates the full range of contingencies — we do.”
But in his memo, Mr. Gates wrote of a variety of concerns, including the absence of an effective strategy should Iran choose the course that many government and outside analysts consider likely: Iran could assemble all the major parts it needs for a nuclear weapon — fuel, designs and detonators — but stop just short of assembling a fully operational weapon.
In that case, Iran could remain a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while becoming what strategists call a “virtual” nuclear weapons state.
Now, if one doesn't read carefully, the obvious implication to infer from this lead is that the Obama administration has been lax on both policy planning and thinking about military contingencies.
If one reads the entire story carefully, however -- something I highly recommend -- two important facts stand out. First, Gates wrote this in January, but it's being leaked now, in mid-April. As Spencer Ackerman notes, the Obama administration has geared up on a variety of fronts on both Iran and nonproliferation. You can criticize the response as inadequate or misguided -- but it's safe to say that there was a policy response.
So why leak the memo now? The Power Line's Scott Johnson asks that very question:
As always with stories like this, one wonders about the motives of the Times's sources. Why would anonymous officials leak word of a highly classified memorandum suggesting that the administration has no policy beyond what has proved to be empty talk? These apparently well-informed officials must think that we have something to worry about.
That's one possibility. Another (not mutually exclusive) possibility is that whoever leaked was on the losing side of the policy debate. The White House has been centralizing the foreign policy process, which inevitably leads to some hurt feelings. Furthermore, the bureaucratic politics on Middle East policy have become both nasty and personal. It wouldn't surprise me if someone in the administration thinks that it's payback time. Which isn't to say that the leaker is necessarily wrong, but Marc Ambinder is right -- there are multiple possible motivations for the leak in the first place.
The second useful nugget of information comes from this paragraph:
Mr. Gates’s memo appears to reflect concerns in the Pentagon and the military that the White House did not have a well prepared series of alternatives in place in case all the diplomatic steps finally failed. Separately, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a “chairman’s guidance” to his staff in December conveying a sense of urgency about contingency planning. He cautioned that a military attack would have “limited results,” but he did not convey any warnings about policy shortcomings (emphasis added).
If the senior uniformed officer is skeptical of the utility of a military attack, that strikes me as pretty important. Sure, one option could be to really ramp up the military option to include a ground assault, but even Iran hawks acknowledge that this is off the table.
So, what do I know now that I didn't know prior to reading Sanger and Shanker? I'd say the following:
1) All policy options on Iran stink.
2) The bureaucratic politics of U.S. Middle East policy are getting worse;
3) The administration has responded to the Gates memo, but not in a way that pleases all of the bureaucratic heavyweights inside the administraion.
4) January is apparently a month of foreign policy "wake-up calls" and "bombshells" in the White House.
What I don't know, after reading Sanger and Shanker, is whether someone like Gates would approve of the administration's current contingency planning on Iran.
Alex Wong/Getty Images)
If there is an Obama doctrine emerging, it is one much more realpolitik than his predecessor’s, focused on relations with traditional great powers and relegating issues like human rights and democracy to second-tier concerns. He has generated much more good will around the world after years of tension with Mr. Bush, and yet he does not seem to have strong personal friendships with many world leaders.
“Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. “If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41,” the first President George Bush, Mr. Emanuel said.
He added, “He knows that personal relationships are important, but you’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation.”
Stephen G. Rademaker, a former official in the George W. Bush administration, said: “For a president coming out of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, it’s remarkable how much he has pursued a great power strategy. It’s almost Kissingerian. It’s not very sentimental. Issues of human rights do not loom large in his foreign policy, and issues of democracy promotion, he’s been almost dismissive of.”
Well, a couple of thoughts. First, the idea of George H.W. Bush disdaining personal relationships is somewhat absurd. Bush 41 was notorious for his thank you cards and supersized Rolodex. On the margins, personal rapport among leaders does count for something, so this certainly helped Bush advance the national inrest.
So that makes Bush different from Obama, right? Well, let's click over to Scott Wilson's story in today's Washington Post now, shall we?
[I]n convening his first international summit -- the largest on a single issue in Washington history -- [Obama] focused more squarely on his relationship with world leaders. He slapped backs, kissed cheeks and met one on one with more than a dozen heads of state, leavening his appeal to shared security interests with a more personal diplomacy.
The approach marked a shift for Obama as he seeks to translate his popularity abroad into concrete support from fellow leaders for his foreign policy agenda, most urgently now in his push for stricter sanctions against Iran.
"He's in charge, he's chairing the meetings, and this is where his personality plays a big part," said Pierre Vimont, the French ambassador to the United States, who compared Obama's role during the summit to the way he led the bipartisan health-care meeting at Blair House in February....
Obama's attention to his guests began on the summit's opening night, when he spent more than an hour and a half greeting the 46 foreign leaders and three heads of international organizations he invited.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom administration officials describe as high on the list of the European leaders Obama most admires, received a kiss on each cheek at the final bilateral meeting.
Obama bowed formally to Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. He used both hands to shake the hands of some leaders and joked with others.
David Miliband, Britain's foreign secretary, said such personal diplomacy is "quite important" at summits, especially one about an issue he said is "often seen as administrative."
"When Obama stands up and says 'My friend Dmitry Medvedev' or 'My friend Nicolas Sarkozy,' he's right, and that's important," Miliband said. "He's made a number of friends of world leaders, and I think that's a testament to why so many arrived to take part in this."
Wow, so it really is George H.W. Obama, right?
As someone who thinks George H.W. Bush has been vastly underrated, I'd love to say yes. But this gets confusing to your humble blogger. After all, some have argued that Obama is really no different than George W. Bush. I'm also pretty sure I've read somewhere, way back in early 2010, that Obama is really Jimmy Carter. So I'm not sure this comparison can or should stick.
Moving from personalities to ideas, the realist/idealist divide, you still wind up with a muddle. Bob Kagan is right to say that Obama's desire for a nuclear-free world is about as idealistic as one can get. Similarly, Obama's affirmation of multilateralism doesn't seem terribly realist either. On the other hand, his policies towards great power rivals like Russia and China, and dependent allies like Israel and Afghanistan, seem pretty damn realist. Much like his Nobel Peace Prize address, the Obama administration's latest foray into the less shallow waters of international relations theory offers a sliver of support to all major IR approaches.
Which box you put him in, I suspect, depends on which policy dimension you think matters most. Human rights advocates will use the r-word; fans of nuclear deterrence will use the i-word. As someone concerned with the management of great power politics, I'd be comfortable calling Obama an realist, but I'm biased -- I speculated that this was the approach the post-Bush president would be forced to pursue.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Your humble blogger has long been a believer that, in matters of American foreign policy, the process can matter just as much as the outcome. Sure, sometimes fortuitous foreign policies emerge from bad decison-making structures, and sometimes bad foreign policies have been thoroughly vetted. On the whole, however, good decision-making processes should lead to good decision-making outcomes.
What makes for a good foreign policy decision-making process? That question comes to mind after reading David Sanger and Peter Baker's NYT story on the Nuclear Posture Review that's going to be unfurled today:
The strategy to be released on Tuesday is months late, partly because Mr. Obama had to adjudicate among advisers who feared he was not changing American policy significantly enough, and those who feared that anything too precipitous could embolden potential adversaries. One senior official said that the new strategy was the product of 150 meetings, including 30 convened by the White House National Security Council, and that even then Mr. Obama had to step in to order rewrites.
That's a lot of meetings for a document of questionable utility.
This also backs up the themese from last week's excellent Financial Times story by Daniel Dombey and Edward Luce on the Obama administration's foreign policy decision-making process that's gotten a lot of play. Over at Shadow Government, Peter Feaver provides some useful cautions about reading too much into stories like this. For the purposes of this blog post, however, I'm just gonna throw those cautions right out the window. Because after reading Dombeyand Luce, I'm both horrified and impressed by what the Obama administration is doing.
Let's start with the good. It's clear that this White House has centralized foreign policy decision-making in a way that we haven't seen since the Bush/Scowcroft years. Presidents have to claim ownership of their foreign policies, so this is cheering news.
There's also a lot of praise in the story for the revival of the NSC interagency process -- particularly the way Tom Donilon is running the deputies' committee:
Also the organiser of Mr Obama's 9.30am national security briefing, Mr Donilon reinstated the paper trails needed to prevent intra-governmental anarchy, using the model de-vised by Brent Scowcroft, national se-curity adviser to George Bush senior and Gerald Ford. Vice-president Joe Biden's team was also incorporated to prevent the kind of "parallel process" Dick Cheney used to circumvent the bureaucracy under George W. Bush.
"If you look for the 2002 or 2003 meeting where the decision to go to war in Iraq was taken, you cannot find it," says the senior official. "By getting the process right, we are improving the quality of decisions."....
The refurbished machinery was perhaps most in evidence during the build-up to Mr Obama's decision in December to send another 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan - a journey that took four months and involved him in 40 hours of Oval Office meetings.
Now, the bad -- and there's more of it than I would like to see.
First, while the White House appears to be running the foreign policy machine, the parts of the White House that are involved should provoke serious consternation. The National Security Advisor, James Jones, is characterized as disengaged. As a result, we get this anecdote:
The lack of a strong national security adviser has created recurring difficulties. Perhaps the best example is the Arab-Israeli peace process, which Mr Obama launched on his second day in office when he appointed George Mitchell as his envoy. Three months later, Mr Obama insisted Benjamin Netanyahu freeze all settlements activity in order to boost Arab confidence in the talks.
In a heated showdown in the Oval Office last May, in which Mr Netanyahu refused to accede to Mr Obama's demand, the only officials present were Mr Emanuel and David Axelrod, senior adviser to Mr Obama in office and during the campaign. Gen Jones was not there. The fallout put the talks in abeyance and damped high Arab hopes for Mr Obama.
"The question is, which bright spark advised the president to demand a settlements freeze without working out what the next step should be when Netanyahu inevitably said 'No'?" says Leslie Gelb, an official in the Carter administration and former head of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Why wasn't George Mitchell in the room? Where was Jones?"
Um... what Gelb said. Seriously, having only Axelrod and Emanuel in the room is doubly disturbing. First, they're not foreign policy experts. Second, having political operatives in the room sends the signal to Netanyahu that the U.S. Israel relationship really is all about domestic politics for Obama. I don't think that's true, but if Netanyahu thinks that it's true, then it could explain a lot of his recent behavior.
Now we get to Obama himself. The implicit message in the story is that he's his own NSC advisor:
Only briefly acquainted with Mr Obama beforehand, General Jones, a retired four-star marine corps general, shows little interest in running the "inter-agency" process - a key part of the job. Somewhat unconventionally, Gen Jones travels frequently and is thus often out of town. Unusually, it is Mr Obama himself who usually chairs the weekly national security council, known as the "principals meeting", not Gen Jones.
Yeah, this is very unusual. Sure, you might think, "hey, this is great, POTUS is really involved!!" Except that when the boss is in the room, the staff will often have a tendency to bite their tongues and refrain from airing discordant views. This will be true even with someone like Obama, who use to lead seminars for a living and by all reports likes having provocative discussions.
Dombey and Luce note in the end that, "Mr Obama has a sharp learning curve, which means his administration continues to evolve." I hope so, because if the article is accurate (and it seems to jibe with prior stories) then there are definite areas for improvement.
My provisional grade: a straight B.
I bring this up because Ethan Bronner's news analysis in the New York Times today nicely captures divisions within the United States and Israel over the importance of the peace process going forward. It also suggests two more questions that should be asked:
[T]wo main issues are keeping American-Israeli tensions on the front burner: disagreement on the effects of what happens in Jerusalem on the rest of the Middle East, and the strength of the Palestinian leadership.
The Obama administration considers establishing a Palestinian state central to other regional goals; it also believes that the Palestinians, led by Mr. Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, are ready to run a country. The Netanyahu government disagrees on both counts. It thinks the issue of Palestinian statehood has little effect on broader American concerns and is also dubious about the ability of the Palestinians to create an entity that can resist a radical takeover.
So, my questions to you:
1) Do you believe that the Israel/Palestine issue is central to wider regional policy concerns?
2) Is the current Palestinian leadership capable of running an independent Palestine?
Ten days ago I took David Axelrod to task for speaking publicly on foreign affairs when that's not really his job description.
I bring this up because I'm wondering if the reverse critricism applies -- should foreign policy leaders stick their beaks into domestic policymaking bailiwicks?
Last week there was this nugget buried within Mark Landler and Helene Cooper's story on the Obama-Clinton relationship on foreign policy: "Mrs. Clinton has also taken on duties that go beyond her job description. At the request of the White House, she made calls to wavering lawmakers to enlist their support for health care legislation late last year."
Now The Hill's Molly K. Hopper reports that the Secretary of State was actively involved in health care lobbying over the weekend:
Hillary Rodham Clinton attempted to persuade on-the-fence Democrats to vote for the healthcare reform bill that narrowly passed the House on Sunday.
Lawmakers told The Hill that Clinton, who failed to convince the Democratic-controlled Congress to pass healthcare reform in 1994, was active in whipping votes for the White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
TMPDC's Rachel Slajda provides some context:
The White House kept her in the bullpen, she told CNN in February, taking the mound only when needed.
"When I am asked, I am very happy to respond. I mean, it's not anything I have direct responsibility for, but I have had a number of conversations and both in the White House and on the Hill and with others who are playing a constructive role," she said.
This is a bit unusual, to say the least. In recent history, Secretaries of State have refrained from active lobbying ands/or participation on matters of domestic policy.
What I'm not sure about is whether this is a violation of an unspoken norm or just an unusual situation. Hillary Clinton is not your ordinary Secretary of State. Unlike Axelrod and foreign policy, I'm not about to claim that the Secretary of State lacks sufficient policy expertise on the issue at hand. And let's face it, Hillary has a wee bit more political capital than, say, Warren Christopher did back in the day.
So, question to readers: is this a big deal?
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
I'm still on vacation -- did anything of note happen over the weekend?
Oh, I see: "probably the biggest thing to become law in 50 years." Well, so long as no one is engaging in hyperbole.
I have nothing to say about the content of the health care bill, but I do wonder whether there will be any positive or negative foreign policy externalities. FP's Joshua Keating provided one humorous example of how the passage of the bill can reframe the Obama narrative on foreign policy in a positive way.
On the other hand, Shadow Government's Dan Blumenthal correctly points out the ways in which Obama neglected foreign policy during the run-up to the bill's passage. This is not surprising -- presidents turn their fortunes around through domestic accomplishments and revived economic growth, not foreign policy achievements -- but it's a reality that Obama needs to confront going forward.
The one thing health care passage might do for Obama is add a dollop of respect for Obama's political acumen among other world leaders. Obama just got the #1 Democratic policy concern written into law after a year of long, drawn-out negotiations, and that's not nothing. Allied leaders might be more willing to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt when dealing with long, drawn-out international negotiations.
What do you think?
Commentary's Jennifer Rubin is reacting way out of proportion to David Axelrod's tour of the Sunday morning talk shows. That said, she's got a germ of a good point:
David Axelrod — a political operative who now seems at the center of foreign-policy formulation (more on this later) — went on the Fox, ABC, and NBC Sunday talk shows to repeat how insulted the Obami were over Israeli building in Jerusalem and what an affront this was to them....
[I]t might have something to do with the fact that Axelrod and the Chicago pols are running foreign policy. It’s attack, attack, attack — just as they do any domestic critic.
Quibble away with Rubin's characterization of "Chicago pols," but she does raise a decent question: why on God's green earth is the Obama equivalent of Karl Rove talking about foreign policy in public?
Since the VP trip from Hell, it's clear that the Obama administration has ratcheted up the rhetoric in private, in public, in press leaks and through multilateral channels to their Israeli counterparts. Given what transpired, it's entirely appropriate that the Obama administration make its displeasure felt publicly.
Why Axelrod, however? Sure, the Sunday morning talk shows wanted to talk health care as well. And it's true that Axelrod, thought of as pro-Israel, could send a tough signal. Still, couldn't the administration have sent Hillary Clinton to one of the Sunday morning talk shows instead? Wouldn't she have been the more appropriate spokesman.
I've spent enought time inside the Beltway to be leery of the gossipy tidbits I collect when I'm down there. That said, there was one persistent drumbeat I heard during my last sojourn -- that Axelrod and the political advisors were acting as Obama's foreign policy gatekeepers.
Now, I am shocked, shocked, that politicians are thinking about foreign policy in a political manner. That said, there is a balance to be struck between political and policy advisors. Even David Frum admitted that this balance got out of whack during the Bush administration. I'd like to see things return to to the pre-21st century equilibrium. It would be disturbing if the new equilibrium is that someone like David Axelrod becomes the foreign policy czar.
UPDATE: You know what's particularly galling about this? When the political operatives fail to do their job and point out politically useful things to do in order to augment American foreign policy:
As an unusual public showdown between the Israeli and American administrations plays out, Hill sources say leading Congressional Democrats would be with the administration on this but would really like to get a phone call from Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, currently en route back to the Middle East to try to salvage Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks.
As former Senate Majority Leader, Mitchell has credibility with the Senators, one staffer said. It would be really helpful if he makes some phone calls from the plane, to say we really need you to stay with the administration, we are trying to push the peace process forward, and if he would articulate some sort of vision, of where this next sort of piece of tactical fight is going.
This is not the first time one has heard this from Hill Democrats that they are feeling a bit in the dark, but at such a tense moment, it is hard not to be astonished that the administration was not working the phones to the Hill all weekend.
"Same exact mistake of the first two Clinton years with majorities in both Houses," one Washington Democratic foreign policy hand said. "You'd think they would have learned the lesson of 'never take your allies for granted' at least after this year."
As it turns out, that was the appropriate tack, because my lackluster effort to process the speech matched the Obama administration's lackluster effort to incorporate foreign policy into the speech (FP's Josh Rogin has expertly parsed the little foreign policy content there was). As predicted, there wasn't a whole hell of a lot of international relations content in the SOTU, despite Heather Hurlburt's best efforts to argue otherwise.
Politico's Laura Rozen noted "the seeming downgrading of foreign policy emphasis in the speech," and The Spectator's Alex Massie observed "Foreign policy received very little, even perfunctory, attention." [UPDATE: oooh, Jeffrey Laurenti has data]:
[Obama] devoted just 14 percent of his speech to international concerns – a far cry from George Bush, who regularly devoted half his State of the Union addresses to foreign policy and national security themes (and fully 88 percent of the infamous “axis of evil” address in 2002, which laid out the road map for war in the Middle East).
What attention was paid to foreign economic policy was desultory when it wasn't firmly wedged in Fantasyland.
In fact, let's deconstruct that entire section of the speech -- it won't take that long:
[W]e need to export more of our goods. Because the more products we make and sell to other countries, the more jobs we support right here in America. So tonight, we set a new goal: We will double our exports over the next five years, an increase that will support two million jobs in America. To help meet this goal, we're launching a National Export Initiative that will help farmers and small businesses increase their exports, and reform export controls consistent with national security.
We have to seek new markets aggressively, just as our competitors are. If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores. But realizing those benefits also means enforcing those agreements so our trading partners play by the rules. And that's why we will continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets, and why we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea, Panama, and Colombia.
Now, let's see if there's anything of substance in there:
1) "We will double our exports over the next five years..." Well, the President said this would happen, so it must be so!! I would humbly request that the president also decree that the pull of gravity be cut in half. The government has an equal chance of making that happen.
2) "we will continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets..." The key word there is "shape." I have every confidence the administration will do this, because they make this pledge in every communique they ever issue. It's a tradition now, like playing "Hail to the Chief." Play the music, pledge to work on Doha, and then go about your business.
3) "we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea, Panama, and Colombia." You mean, by ratifying the threee trade agreements that have already been signed and negotiated? Oh, you don't mean that? Well, never mind, then.
State of the Union speeches are usually about domestic priorities, and it's not surprising that this one played to type. Still, I would have liked to have seen a more robust effort to link foreign policy priorities to domestic priorities -- because the two are more linked than is commonly acknowledged.
Comment away on what you expect/hope/fear from Barack Obama's first State of the Union address.
While you're waiting, check out this pre-SOTU bloggingheads diavlog with NSN's Heather Hurlburt, in which
she exposes every male foreign policy wonk's secret fantasy at about the 3:30 mark we discuss what could be on the agenda -- as well as Haiti, Google, and Sino-American relations:
Marc Lynch and Andrew Sullivan both have posts up today that share a similar theme. Marc looks at Obama's effort to jumpstart the Israel/Palestine peace talks, while Sullivan looks at the efforts to close the Guantanamo prisons. Both Lynch and Sully make the same points:
1) These are good ideas;
2) One year in, these initiatives are completely bogged down;
3) A key reason they've been bogged down is the fecklessness of the Obama administration.
Well.... maybe. External circumstanves play a role here as well. I'm sympathetic to generating forward momentum for Israel/Palestine peace talks, but it strikes me that people who bewail the lack of progress on this issue suffer from the liberal variant of Matt Yglesias' Green Lantern Theory of International Relations. Given the state of Israeli public opinion and the state of Palestinian political coherence, a Netanyahu-led Israeli regime was not going to acquiesce to outside pressure. An Obama administration that tried such pressure and failed would actually be in a weaker position than they are now.
Similarly, on Gitmo, when Obama seemed to push forward on this issue, he ran up against the political reality that Americans like closing Gitmo down in theory more than in practice. And Obama then acted... politically.
What I find striking is that many people who consider themselves part of the "reality-based community" now want the Obama administration to absorb the Bush administration's ontological beliefs and thereby create their own realities.
In a manner of speaking, the Bush team did have a small point. What the Bush administration excelled at was making irreversible policy decisions. You can't uninvade Iraq or Afghanistan -- and, as Obama is finding out, undoing Gitmo is much harder than it souds on the campaign stump. There are some policy decisions that, once they are made, are so path dependent that they are either impossible or really difficult to reverse.
The thing is, I don't see a lot on Obama's foreign policy agenda that qualifies (though Gitmo might). Policy initiatives that require multilateral cooperation are pretty easy to undo. So unless there's buy-in from other key actors, there's only so much the Obama administration can do on things like Israel/Palestine.
Which is Reason #451 why Obama won't be turning to foreign policy post-SOTU.
Picking up on a theme I discussed earlier this week, I see that both Fred Kaplan and Matthew Yglesias conclude that a politically chastened Obama will not find any salvation in foreign policy. They both give similar reasons -- anything of significance will require Congressional approval, and Congress ain't in the giving mood.
I don't really disagree with Kaplan and Yglesias, but I do think they're missing something important: with an economy shedding jobs, the last thing Obama wants to do is pump up his international profile. Even if he could claim successes, foreign policy achievements -- particularly of the non-military kind -- during an economic downturn are pretty much a dead-bang political loser. Why? Because even successes suggests that the president cares more about the rest of the world than his own countrymen.
Think about it. The last time a sitting president focused on foreign affairs in the middle of a recession was George H.W. Bush. That was great from a policy perspective, but a political disaster for Bush. I won't swear to this, but my impression is that Obama's standing has taken a hit whenever he's gone overseas in the past year.
On the other hand, during a recession presidents can tell the rest of the world to go f*** themselves and they won't lose much in the way of popularity.
Just a glance at the December 2009 Pew survey shows the extent to which Americans are looking inward. And who can blame them -- it's a pretty bad economy and there's double-digit unemployment. This tendency is exacerbated by something that Kaplan does point out:
In the post-Cold War world, with the fracturing of power and the decline of influence by any one country or bloc, the problems that he faces are simply harder—more impervious to military, economic, or diplomatic pressure—than they would have been 20 to 50 years ago.
I'd say "post-Great Recession world," but that's quibbling. If Americans are fed up with how long it takes for anything to get done in Congress, wait until they pay attention to foreign affairs. The Doha round is on year nine and counting. With important exceptions, the United States has military forces in practically every country it's intervened in since 1945. Who knows how long a global warming treaty -- or the reconstruction of Haiti -- will take.
Are there exceptions? Sure, but they're ephemeral. I suspect the follow-on to START-II would get through the Senate, because, really, is now the time to pick a fight with Russia? Osama bin Laden's head on a pike would probably warm the cockles of most Americans. But they wouldn't stay warm for long.
No, it's the economy, stupid. The healthier the economy, the more political capital for Obama, and the less likely he will be punished for taking an interest in foreign affairs. If Obama has any political self-preservation instincts at all, international relations will be done on the DL for a while.
It's unfair, and very problematic for foreign policy wonks, but no one said life is fair.
Everyone inside the Beltway is preparing their 500 words on what the results in the Massachusetts special Senate election will mean for Barack Obama's domestic policy agenda. It's worth speculating for a moment, however, about the implications of this election for Obama's foreign policy agenda. What would a Republican victory signal to the rest of the world? How would the rest of the world's policymakers react?
The first and simplest answer would be that there would be no effect. It's just a single Senate election. Furthermore, one could argue that, on foreign policy, GOP hopeful Scott Brown is actually closer to Barack Obama than Martha Coakley. Brown supports Obama's Afghanistan plan -- Coakley opposes it. This election hasn't really been about foreign policy. Surely, then, a GOP upset wouldn't have much impact on the realm of international relations.
Not so fast, however. The election will also be interpreted as a signal of Obama's domestic political strength. Unless the numbers are way off, the Republicans will do much better tonight than anyone expected even two weeks ago. Foreign leaders -- particularly those from countries not terribly well-schooled in electoral politics -- will undoubtedly interpret that as a sign of:
1) Obama's domestic weakness; and
2) The depths of populist outrage in the United States -- populist outrage that could bleed over into increased protectionism, isolationism, or "kill them all and let God sort them out" provocation on the foreign policy front.
Soooo..... how they respond to this information depends on many factors. If they prefer Obama and his foreign policies to the GOP (cough, Europe, cough), then they might prove to be more accommodating to U.S. positions. If they like the results from a United States foreign policy that is more hawkish (cough, Iran and Venezuela, cough), then they might amp up their belligerence to make Obama look weak and hamstrung.
The one sure effect of the election is that it will throw a monkey wrench into international negotiations that require legislative approval. Unless Obama can secure bipartisan support for, say, a replacement to Start II, other countries' negotiators are going to wonder why they should bother with the transaction costs of negotiation.
Am I missing anything?
Megan McArdle and I have a diavlog up at Bloggingheads.tv that is so 2009... mostly because we taped it on the last day or last year. We discuss the big stuff of the decade -- 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, the financial crisis -- and reflect on what, if anything, we learned.
One additional point that I failed to mention in the diavlog itself. While this was a bad decade for America, it was actually a pretty great decade for large swathes of the globe. China, Russia, India, Brazil, and much of sub-Saharan Africa recorded sustained levels of economic growth., for example.
I know that's little comfort to the unemployed in Ohio. My point is that the "good riddance" aspect to the end-of-the-naughts is hardly a global phenomenon.
My FP colleague Marc Lynch has dissected Alan Kuperman's New York Times op-ed on the wisdom of bombing Iran. Lynch takes great pains (more on that in a moment) to rip apart Kuperman's argument so I don't have to, but I can't resist pointing out the most tendentious point in the essay:
As for the risk of military strikes undermining Iran’s opposition, history suggests that the effect would be temporary. For example, NATO’s 1999 air campaign against Yugoslavia briefly bolstered support for President Slobodan Milosevic, but a democratic opposition ousted him the next year.
Now, this assertion contains facts, but is so radically incomplete as to be f***ing insane.
To add a bit of detail: maybe, just maybe, the reason Slobodan Milosevic was ousted had less to do with the bombing itself, but because the Serbian leader completely capitulated to NATO's demands on Kosovo after eight weeks of airstrikes. The bombing angered those already on the outs with Milosevic; the acquiescence after costly punishment angered Serbian nationalists and technocrats. So it wasn't just the bombing that affected Serbian politics -- it was Milosevic's decision to alter Serbian policy in a manner favorable to NATO.
So, yes, if the Iranian leadership does what Kuperman wants them to do after being bombed -- acquiesce on the nuclear program -- then yes, they'll be gone. Now, raise your hand if you think the current Iranian leadership will respond to a bombing campaign by shifting their position closer to the U.S. position.
So, yes, this is a pretty silly op-ed, and the New York Times wasted an awful lot of column inches on it. Go ahead, heap some calumny on them. *
The Obama administration almost certainly doesn't want to make such a wrong-headed move --- but, then, there are a lot of things which the Obama administration doesn't want to do but has been forced into by political realities (Gitmo, the public option, escalation in Afghanistan) and intentions aren't enough. Many people may have assumed that the legacy of Iraq would have raised the bar on such arguments for war, that someone making such all too familiar claims would simply be laughed out of the public square. The NYT today shows that they aren't. I suspect that one of the great foreign policy challenges of 2010 is going to be to push back on this mad campaign for another pointless, counter-productive war for the sake of war.
I would interpret things differently. Changing the policy status quo is really, really hard, and it's normally pretty easy to gin up significant political opposition to any proposed change. The status quo on Iran is that we're not bombing them , so I expect that to continue for a good long while.
Indeed, the reactions to this op-ed remind me of the panic among progressives in 2007 that the Bush administration was gearing up to bomb Iran. The truth was somewhat different.
By all means, critique Kuperman's argument. But let's not pretend that Dick Cheney is still vice president, or that Bill Kristol can start a war with a Weekly Standard column. The world really has changed a bit.
*UPDATE: The more I think about the massive flaws in this op-ed, the more I'm beginning to wonder if this wasn't a strategic move by the New York Times op-ed page editors to subtly undercut the neoconservative argument for war. Indeed, I would not describe the GOP links to the essay as terribly enthusiastic. I do love Tom Gross' characterization of it as, "dry and academic and long (it runs to two pages online)." Yes, because if you can't make the case for military action in under 400 words, there's just no point in bothering.
Ezra Klein makes an interesting point regarding the health care plan that will likely emerge from Congress: that it pretty much matches what Obama the candidate promised in his health care plan (hat tip: Sullivan).
I bring this up because when you think about Barack Obama's foreign policy, you come to a very similar conclusion. It's a useful exercise to re-read Obama's July 2007 Foreign Affairs essay, "Renewing American Leadership," and compare it to Obama's first year as foreign policymaker-in-chief. In the essay, he emphasized the following:
Not everything has been implemented -- his foreign aid pledges won't materialize, and the Middle East peace process remains an oxymoron. It's nevertheless quite striking how much Obama's first year of foreign policy outputs matches the blueprint he sketched out as a candidate. The only exception I can think of is homeland security.
By the by, it's also the case that the issues he didn't emphasize -- like trade, for example -- have pretty much gone nowhere.
Whether you think this is a good thing or not depends on your view of the policy content. Still, one would be hard-pressed to argue that on foreign policy, Obama the president has deviated from what he set out to do as a candidate.
I still think we should pay less attention to what he said and focus on what he and his advisors do. In his first year in office, President Obama has made two critical decisions involving matters of war, peace and justice. The first is his decision to abandon the admirable principles he set forth in his Cairo speech in June, to tacitly accept the continued expansion of Israel's West Bank settlements, and to collude in a well-orchestrated assault on the Goldstone Report on war crimes in Gaza. The result will be to perpetuate precisely the sort of injustice that gives rise to very violence he deplored in his speech. The second is his decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan -- sending 17,000 troops last spring and 30,000 more last month -- despite the continued absence of a compelling rationale or coherent strategy for success.
From Day One, Obama has shown that he is a thoughtful and intelligent leader who takes his responsibilities seriously and weighs decisions carefully. But in the end, what matters is not how long or hard he thinks or how well he talks. What matters is whether he makes the right decisions. And by that criterion, he's 0 for 2.
No doubt, these are important policy actions. The most important, however? No, I don't think so -- not if you really buy the precepts of realism (Indeed, one of the things I love about purebred realists is how they emphasize the importance of power beyond all else, and then obsess about every aspect of American foreign policy except great power interactions).
No, what should matter most for realists is how the United States engages the other great powers of the world -- China, Russia, and maybe India and the European Union. By this metric, the four most important actions the Obama administration has taken to date are:
On the whole, in great power politics, I'd say Obama is doing reasonably well. Relations with Russia are unquestionably better than they were a year ago. Sino-American relations are fraught with more tension, as recent events in Copenhagen suggest. However, I'm with James Fallows in noting that Obama's China trip was more successful than most commentators noted in November.
There might come a time in the future when the United States must balance against these countries, but that day is a long way off. For now, however, one could argue the Obama administration's emphasis on developing a more robust economic foundation for American power necessitates relatively peaceful relations with the other great powers.
What do you think?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.