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?
Oh, professors of introductory international relations classes everywhere are thanking their maker for Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (well, except those in Steve Walt's classes). It's a gift to anyone who needs to come up with a final exam question at this stage of the semester. Pick a paradigm, and you can find a sliver of the speech dedicated to its theoretical propositions.
I'm sure, for example, that the realists in the crowd will like this section:
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago -- "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naive -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
Side note: for those who complain that Barack Obama does not speak uncomfortable truths, read over that section again and realize that he's saying this directly to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.
So, a contest for readers: pore over the speech and look for evidence suggesting Obama favors the following approaches:
It's easy... and fun!!
[Doesn't this imply that the speech was logically contradictory?--ed. No, it implies that the world is a hell of a lot more complex than any of these theoretical approaches. Alas, knowing when to apply each of these worldviews is more art than science.]
Analogical reasoning can be very dangerous in foreign affairs. The human impulse to see patterns everywhere can lead to the use of inexact analogies -- "X is another Vietnam" or "Y is another Minuch." This in turn leads to bad foreign policy decisions, as anyone with a passing familiarity with this book can tell you.
So one of the things I liked about Obama's speech last night was his willingness to confront some analogical reasoning head-on. Consider this section, for example:
[T]here are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we're better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. I believe this argument depends on a false reading of history. Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.
One could quibble a bit with some elements of that paragraph -- the U.S. really did have allies contribute troops in Vietnam -- but that's a decent analysis as far as it goes.
The thing that nags at me, however, is the implicit analogy in last night's speech, and in the policy discourse that will surround this decision: Afghanistan in late 2009 parallels Iraq in late 2006, and therefore a surge strategy now will have similar effects.
Glenn Greenwald has already catalogued the parallels in rhetorical tropes between the two instances (and Steven Metz chronicles the actual policy parallels). Greenwald believes this will expose the hollowness at the core of Obama's strategy, but I don't think he gets the politics of this at all. My hunch is that the surge is perceived to have worked pretty well -- Iraq in 2009 is in better straits than Iraq in 2006. If policymakers are unconsciously adopting this parallel, then the strategy will sell.
The thing is, Afghanistan is very, very different from Iraq. As tough a nut as state-building is in Iraq, it's a country with fewer ethnic and linguistic divisions, better infrastructure, a better educated citizenry, more natural endowments, and a longer history of relative "stability" than Afghanistan. Whatever you think about the surge strategy, the odds of success in Afghanistan are lower than in Iraq.
This doesn't mean that Obama's other policy options are better -- but I'd like to know the extent to which the administration recognizes the flaws in the surge analogy.
Comment away on Obama's Afghanistan speech here. My quick hits:
[I]t's possible to defend Belichick's call on fourth down as the rational, utility-maximizing decision, but conclude that he committed a series of small blunders that got the Patriots to the point where they had to convert a high-risk, high-reward play. In other words, sometimes the criticized decision might be the right one to make, but the decisions that structured the controversial choice might not have been.
... Looking at the Obama administration's foreign policy, which move echoes Belichick's play-calling?
I think I have my answer now.
This is a 51-49 decision, and I'm far from confident that he's doing the right thing. If that Eisenhower quote is any indication, however, I'm pretty sure that the decision-making process was solid.
James Fallows blogs about how George W. Bush has acted like all ex-presidents by refusing to criticize their successors in their first year of office -- as opposed to ex-VP Dick Cheney. To Fallows, this is an unforgivable sin:
I am not aware of a case of a former president or vice president behaving as despicably as Cheney has done in the ten months since leaving power, most recently but not exclusively with his comments to Politico about Obama's decisions on Afghanistan. (Aaron Burr might win the title, for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, but Burr was a sitting vice president at the time.) Cheney has acted as if utterly unconcerned with the welfare of his country, its armed forces, or the people now trying to make difficult decisions. He has put narrow score-settling interest far, far above national interest.
I confess that I've been on the fence about Cheney's outspokenness to date. On the one hand, I think Fallows is correct in pointing out the breach of protocol. On the other hand, I think Cheney genuinely believes that he has an obligation to speak out on foreign policy matters. In his mind, the stakes are huge enough, and the policies Obama is pursuing are wrong enough, to warrant his criticisms.
So I'm inclined to cut Cheney some slack for his decision to speak out. On the other hand, when we read the Politico interview, Cheney's actual sins come out:
Cheney rejected any suggestion that Obama had to decide on a new strategy for Afghanistan because the one employed by the previous administration failed.
Cheney was asked if he thinks the Bush administration bears any responsibility for the disintegration of Afghanistan because of the attention and resources that were diverted to Iraq. “I basically don’t,” he replied without elaborating (emphasis added).
Seriously? Seriously? I dare any Cheney supporter to make the argument that Afghanistan was hunky-dory until January 20, 2009, at which point things went to hell in a handbasket.
For the rest of us on the Planet Earth, there's no way to read that passage and not come to one of two possible conclusions:
I don't mind that Cheney speaks up for what he thinks is right -- I mind that he's a liar.
Or, to paraphrase Garry Trudeau, "That's LIAR! LIAR!! LIAR!! LIAR!!"
As Peter Feaver observed over at Shadow Government, there's an ever-increasing number of leaks coming from the Obama administration on foreign policy.
Beyond the drip-drip-drip on the Afghan strategic review, the foreign policy community is now agog at Massimo Calabresi and Michael Weisskopf's story in Time on the rise and fall of Greg Craig, Obama's first White House Counsel. Former colleague Laura Rozen labels it as, "one of the most devastating accounts to have emerged of the Obama White House."
Calabresi and Weisskopf's story contains astonishing revelations, like the following:
Well, blow me down.
I don't mean to belittle those who either ardently support or ardently oppose the initial efforts to eliminate the legacies of Guantanamo and the like. But stories that reveal politicians to be acting, er, politically don't really cause my jaw to drop.
The only interesting thing I found in this piece was the part Rozen excerpted:
Obama arrived at Emanuel's office a few minutes later, took off his windbreaker and sat down at a table lined with about a dozen national-security and political advisers. He asked each to state a position and then convened an impromptu debate, selecting Craig and McDonough to argue opposing sides. Craig deployed one of Obama's own moral arguments: that releasing the memos "was consistent with taking a high road" and was "sensitive to our values and our traditions as well as the rule of law." Obama paused, then decided in favor of Craig, dictating a detailed statement explaining his position that would be released the next day.
But for Craig, it turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Four days later, former Vice President Dick Cheney attacked Obama on Fox News Channel for dismantling the policies he and Bush had put in place to keep the country safe. More significant was the reaction within Obama's camp. Democratic pollsters charted a disturbing trend: a drop in Obama's support among independents, driven in part by national-security issues. Emanuel quietly delegated his aides to get more deeply involved in the process. Damaged by the episode, Craig was about to suffer his first big setback.
In other words, the median American voters are comfortable with using illiberal means to protect the national interest (hmmm... that sounds familiar). And, shock upon shock, politicians respond to public attitudes.
I'm late to this party, but two quick thoughts on Obama's Tokyo speech:
1. Last week a sharp foreign policy observer -- and a former campaign advisor for Obama -- made an interesing lexicographical observation to me about the Obama administration's foreign policy rhetoric to date. They use the word "partnership" a hell of a lot more often than they use the word "alliance." That's not terribly surprising, given their emphasis on talking with adversaries, forming great power concerts, etc. Still, there are times when it's important to reach out more to one's allies than one's rivals.
The Tokyo speech was one of those occasions, and I'm happy to report that Obama used "alliance" 12 times and "partnership" only 9 times. Perhaps this says more about the lay of the land in the Pacific Rim than anything else, but it does suggest that the adminstration is sensitive to regional nuances.
2. That said, I was underwhelmed with the trade outreach of the speech. Some reports suggest that Obama announced that the U.S. would join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an APEC trade forum comprising, at the moment, of Brunei, Singapore, Chile and New Zealand (with Vietnam and Australia thinking about joining).
What Obama actually said, however, was:
The United States will also be engaging with the Trans-Pacific Partnership countries with the goal of shaping a regional agreement that will have broad-based membership and the high standards worthy of a 21st century trade agreement.
So what exactly does that mean? Helene Cooper points out the ambiguities of that language in the New York Times:
Although Mr. Obama did open the door during his speech in Tokyo on Asia policy, he did not explicitly say that the United States would join the pact. A formal announcement that the United States is beginning negotiations would undoubtedly kick off criticism from free-trade opponents in the United States and pushback from Congress.
Mr. Obama spoke, instead, of “engaging the Trans-Pacific Partnership countries with the goal of shaping a regional agreement that will have broad-based membership and the high standards worthy of a 21st century trade agreement.”
That line left many trade envoys already in Singapore scratching their heads: did Mr. Obama mean that the United States would begin formal talks to join the regional trade pact, which presently includes Singapore, Brunei and New Zealand, and could later include Vietnam — an addition that could lead to more Congressional pressure at home?
Many regional officials have been waiting for the United States to join the initiative as a demonstration that Washington will play a more active role in the region. But the Obama administration has yet to establish a firm trade policy, as it is still reviewing its options.
White House officials were not much clearer on what Mr. Obama meant when they were pressed on this after the speech. Michael Froman, an economics expert on the National Security Council, said that what Mr. Obama meant was that he would engage with the initiative “to see if this is something that could prove to be an important platform going further.”
Wow, that's some real enthusiasm coming from the G-20 sherpa.... not.
For an administration that likes to pride itself as savvy in the ways of foreign policy subtleties, I still don't think they grasp the fact that trade policy is now embedded into foreign policy in the Asia/Pacific Region.
Throughout the course of the Bush administration, a constant irritant in the Asia/Pacific region was Bush's tendency to place antiterrorism at the top of the queue in Asia/Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) discussions. Not that anti-terrorism wasn't important, but APEC was not the proper forum for that -- APEC is all about regional economic integration. China, by wanting to talk about trade, made a lot of diplomatic headway by distinguishing itself from the United States.
I bring this up because, according to the FT's Edward Luce, it looks like the Obama administration's policy malaise on trade is not winning it any allies in East Asia:
In a meeting with President Barack Obama last week, Lee Kuan Yew, the veteran former prime minister of Singapore, said he felt privileged to meet the US leader at a “time of renewal and change in America and during a period of transition where the world order is changing”.
At private meetings around Washington, however, Mr Lee’s message was rather more blunt.
“You guys are giving China a free run in Asia,” he told Fred Bergsten, the director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The vacuum in US policy is enabling the Chinese to make the running.”
Mr Lee’s timing was apposite. On Wednesday Mr Obama leaves for Tokyo for a regional tour that will include China, South Korea and Singapore, where Mr Lee’s government is hosting a summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) forum this weekend. Surveys in each country show that Mr Obama’s popularity has helped to restore the battered US standing in the region.
But the views of Asian governments do not always chime with those of their public. Across the region, concern is rising about the absence of US leadership on trade since Mr Obama took office. Few believe that he has the will or power to restart the Doha round of global trade talks – and he has not asked Congress for a renewal of the presi- dent’s fast-track negotiating authority.
Fewer still believe that he will be able to ratify the landmark 2007 US-South Korea free-trade agreement in the face of strong hostility in Congress....
while globalisation gets steadily less popular in the US, other parts of the world are moving ahead. South Korea recently concluded a free-trade deal with Europe. Japan is holding similar talks with the European Union. Ironically, the EU broached the talks as a way of protecting itself against the trade-diverting effects of the now moribund US-Korea deal.
US business lobby groups are hoping Mr Obama will be able to achieve some kind of a breakthrough in Seoul next week. Given that it would be futile for him to send the free-trade agreement back to Capitol Hill, any new steps would have to include a renegotiation of the deal to include better market access for US cars.
“It is really important to understand just how badly the US is screwing itself on trade,” said Mr Bergsten. “By having an inactive trade policy, others are rushing to fill the vacuum.”
For an administration that claims it wants to have better relations with its allies, Obama and his foreign policy team have been remarkably tone-deaf when it comes to trade policy.
At every major summit meeting since he's come to office, Obama has heard complaints about the lack of U.S. leadership on the trade front. This administration has demonstrated that it's not afraid to tackle multiple, complex challenges at the same time -- and yet they've been either mute or worse when it comes to trade.
Barack Obama's decision to put trade policy in a lockbox and throw away the key is utterly appalling -- and, from a foreign policy perspective, completely counterproductive.
A year after Barack Obama's election, I'm seeing a lot of post-mortems on his administration's first year in foreign policy. Ben Smith's Politico story is a nice template for them:
Foreign policy never goes according to campaign plan, but for President Barack Obama, who promised a hardheaded new engagement with the world, the last week and the weeks he sees looming ahead must be discouraging.
Across a region spanning Pakistan to the Mediterranean, foreign leaders seem to be challenging the very premise of his policy: that foreign countries can reasonably be persuaded to move in the direction of common interests, and that a better-loved America can get more done.
In Afghanistan, an all-out effort to promote a legitimate election turned into a scramble to prevent a civil war and ease the defrauded challenger off the stage. Iran persuaded the White House to drop its late-September deadline for action and then appears to have rejected a deal on nuclear fuel. Great powers such as Russia and China show no appetite for crucial concessions, while the U.S. Congress continues to block major action on a pillar of Obama’s policy goals — international action on climate change.
To which I say: meh. First, Smith's premise about Obama's foreign policy isn't quite right. Sure, I think Obama and his foreign policy team would love it if "foreign countries can reasonably be persuaded to move in the direction of common interests, and that a better-loved America can get more done." But c'mon, these are not stupid people, and I'm pretty sure that they know the limits of diplomatic goodwill and reasoned discourse.
Second, you always need to grade on a curve -- i.e., how has Obama's first ten months stacked up to prior administratons? Most incoming administrations screw up plenty in their first year in office. With Clinton, there was flip-flopping over Haiti, dithering over Bosnia, screw-ups over Japan, etc. With Bush 43, there was a lack of consultation with allies over treaty withdrawals, a dramatic policy shift on North Korea that badly embarrassed South Korea's leadership and eventually had to be walked back, and that whole failure-to-prevent 9/11 problem. Even with George H.W. Bush, the first six months primarily consisted of a strategic review of the Soviet Union that was overtaken by events the moment it was finished.
Will Obama have to walk back or reverse course on foreign policy? He's done so on Israel, to be sure, and might do so on Afghanistan. He has had successes in Honduras, Russia and the Somali pirates, however. So far, I'd say Obama is shooting par for the course.
I haven't been a huge fan of certain aspects of Obama's foreign policy -- like Philip Levy, I'm not thrilled with his trade policy. Mostly, however, I'd characterize his foreign policy actions as reasonable -- and pretty much what I'd expected a year ago today.
What about you, dear readers -- how do you grade Obama's foreign policy?
Gideon Rachman notes that despite the French concern with happiness, the French themselves are pretty depressed.
I'm pretty sure stories like this are not going to lift the mood of French President Nicolas Sarkozy:
There is no Club Sarkozy nearby in this sweltering, squalid capital [of Guinea]; in West Africa, the French president cannot compete at present, despite his country’s historic connections as the former colonial power here. Right now, in this volatile region, mere mention of being from America — Obama’s America — is enough to avert an armed soldier’s grim gaze, defuse a mob’s anger, soften an unyielding border guard or lower the demands from ubiquitous bribe-seeking policemen.
The president’s name, freshly painted, appears above a barbershop, a grocery, a school, even tire stores here, as well as the cabaret in Boulbinet. In a leading bookstore downtown, a full-scale poster of Obama looks out from behind a closed door, a visual echo of the sentiments of those who go in to discuss politics.
The implications of this new American authority in an unfamiliar spot received a tryout last week, when the Obama administration sent a senior diplomat here to condemn the massacre of dozens of unarmed civilians protesting Guniea’s military government in September. They seem clear: America punches above its weight, in a part of the world that it has hitherto left to the French. The United States, with few practical sticks to beat the junta, nonetheless has a moral authority in the streets that the big-dog French do not match....
[W]hen Mrs. Clinton said the next day that she was “appalled” by the “vile violation of the rights of the people” in Guinea, Captain Camara had nothing to say, publicly at least. But when Mr. Kouchner called for an international intervention force, the captain angrily said, “Guinea is not a subprefecture, is not a neighborhood in France.”
The differing reactions were not lost on local observers. Mamadou Mouctar Diallo, an opposition leader, said Captain Camara “dared to defy France, but he didn’t dare defy the U.S.”
“America is a power that counts,” Mr. Diallo said. “You can’t turn your back on them.”
If you're wondering why it took me a few hours before choosing to blog about Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Price award.... well, it took me that long to stop laughing.
Honestly, I'm not laughing at Obama. I'm laughing at the morons on the Norwegian Nobel Committee who made this decision to cheapen an already devalued prize.
Seriously, let's imagine the deliberations that led to this decision:
CHAIR: Guys? Guys!! It's 2 AM and we've got an award to give later today! What are we gonna do? We can't use Jimmy Carter again -- he was our emergency winner the last time we were stumped! If we don't do this right, we'll have less credibility than the Grammys!!
MEMBER A (clearly drunk): Hey, why not Neil Patrick Harris? For bringing peace to.... umm..... Hollywood awards shows?!MEMBER B: Remember when Time's Man of the Year was... you? Why can't we do something like that? You know, say that the Peace Prize goes to all peace-loving people.
CHAIR: No f%$&ing way. What do you want me to do, hold up a mirror to the cameras when I say who won? And you know how many idiots would ask for their take of the prize money?
MEMBER A: Seriously, Neil Patrick Harris is awesome. Any of you checked out Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog?
MEMBER B: Hey, how about that Iranian guy who won the election but got screwed by the mullahs? He seemed pretty peaceful.
CHAIR: Sorry, no dice. We used up our Iranian quota this decade with Shirin Ebadi.
MEMBER B: That Zimbabwean guy?
CHAIR: If you can't remember his name, then he's not getting the award.
MEMBER C: Did you read how the Oscars will have, like, 10 nominees for Best Picture this year? Why not give this to all 20 members of the G-20?
CHAIR: Doesn't the G-20 actually have more than 20 members? Can anyone name them all?
MEMBER A: And How I Met Your Mother is definitely underrated as a sitcom. NPH owns that show.
MEMBER C: Hugh Jackman was People's Sexiest Man Alive this year. Why not double up on him, like we did with Al Gore?
MEMBER A: Get serious, man. Wolverine sucked!!
MEMBER B: Hey, here's a crazy thought... why not Barack Obama?
General laughter and merriment.
CHAIR: How exactly are we going to justify the award? Jesus, even Jimmy Carter had done some actual peacemaking when we gave it to him. What are we going to say? "Barack Obama has succeeded brilliantly in not acting like George W. Bush in His First Term?"
MEMBER B: C'mon... the guy just lost the Olympics bid even after flying all the way to Copenhagen.
MEMBER A: Hey, how about Taylor Swift? We could guarantee Kanye wasn't in the audience.
MEMBER B: Look, maybe it will give Obama a boost. With the massive prestige that the Nobel Peace Prize now carries in the United States because of our brilliant recent selections, maybe this will help get health care reform passed. This award would so put conservatives on the defensive!
[General nodding around the table.]
MEMBER A: Fine, no one else likes Neil Patrick Harris at this table, I get that. What about Roman Polanski? That would make a statement.
CHAIR (looks at watch): Fine, whatever, we're way past deadline. (Points at MEMBER B). Write up the explanation. (Points at MEMBER A). Contact Neil Patrick Harris and put him on "standby" in case Obama can't make it for the acceptance speech.
MEMBER B (scribbling furiously): Hmmm....how's this? "Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama's initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened."
CHAIR: Hmmm.... no actual achievements other than Not Being George W. Bush in His First Term, but it sure sounds good! OK, we're adjourned
MEMBER C (looking through nomination letters): I can't believe that professor from Tufts nominated Salma Hayek again. Doesn't he know that this is a serious award?!
In semi-seriousness -- Bono got robbed, man.
UPDATE: I do think Obama's response was to the hubbub was pretty good. Again, I'm really not laughing at him -- I'm laughing at the Nobel Committee's decision-making. At this point in time, there were a lot of other, more deserving candidates.
Giving the award to Obama is kind of like giving that junior professor the Teacher of the Year award -- it dooms their chances for tenure.
The Century Foundation's Jeffrey Laurenti earlier this week on the sharp differences between the Obama administration and its predecessor:
Barack Obama is reaping treble returns for America this week as he makes his first appearance as president at the United Nations. Never has an American president been greeted on the U.N.'s unique global stage with such giddy anticipation, or undertaken so extensive and substantive a schedule there....
[I]t is Obama's dramatic realignment of U.S. policy away from American conservatives' unique fetishes, and to the mainstream goals and values that most of the American people share with the rest of the world, that explains the new opportunity for renewed American leadership.
From Helene Cooper's write-up of Obama's United Nations speech today in the New York Times:
But even as Mr. Obama sought to signal a changed tone in America’s dealings with the world, much of his speech centered on old and intractable issues, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions and a Middle East peace process. And while his choice of words was different and more conciliatory, the backbone of American policy he expressed remained similar to the Bush administration’s in many areas.
Well, that clarifies matters, then.
After the sturm und drang of last week's decision by the Obama administration to slap tariffs on Chinese tires, I've seen a bit of a pushback among the economic commentariat. This pushback comes in one of two forms:
Over at TNR, Noam Scheiber makes the first case -- that this is a tempest in a teapot:
With anti-trade sentiment rising in the aftermath of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, it's become increasingly difficult to resist genuine protectionism--to say nothing of passing new trade pacts. (Bilateral deals with Colombia, South Korea, and Panama have all stalled out in Congress.) Absent a small gesture on behalf of American workers, it's safe to say the trade agenda would be doomed for the foreseeable future. (It may be anyway, of course.) Which is why Obama's decision seemed relatively straightforward once the International Trade Commission ruled that Chinese tires were in fact disruptive. Even so, Obama announced that the tariff would top out at 35 percent, well below the 55 percent recommended by the ITC.
So the tariff is modest, narrow, legal, and designed to preserve the political viability of free trade....
[B]oth Bush and Obama were rhetorically committed to free trade at the time of their tariff flirtations, and both men had taken practical steps to promote it. (Bush had sought fast-track authority from Congress; Obama, in a much tougher political environment for trade, scaled back a "buy American" provision in the stimulus.) So pretty much the only way to divine this difference is by peering into the two men's souls.
Hmmm........ no, not buying the equivalence between Bush and Obama here. First, to repeat, just because something is legal doesn't mean it's good policy.
Second, as Phil Levy pointed out, the Bush administration specifically declined to apply these tariffs when he was president. So there is some different between the two administrations' perspectives on trade.
Third, if Scheiber is correct that this is merely "a small gesture on behalf of American workers," then I'd be fine. But I'm curious about his faith in that assertion. All the political signs point to a lot of gestures in the protectionist direction. Each of them, by themselves, is Lilliputian in their effects -- but the cumulative effect can be to keep the Gulliver of freer trade under lock and key.
The Financial Times' Alan Beattie makes the more interesting argument -- which is that a short term sacrifice of trade policy in favor of health care will sow the seeds of a viable long-term policy of trade liberalization:
The conventional wisdom in Washington is that this is a straight trade-off. Placate the labour unions on trade and get them to support Mr Obama on healthcare. Whisper it quietly, and be prepared for accusations of heresy to rain down on your head, but that might be a deal worth making....
Instead of hoarsely exhorting the benefits of trade to people who aren’t listening, [trade enthusiasts] need to be seen to soften its downside. Since the American public seems to ascribe much job loss in the US economy to globalisation – usually wrongly, but there we have it – this means reducing the costs of being laid off. Since much healthcare is currently tied to employment, achieving universal coverage would be one of the best ways of doing that....
Mr Obama has now come down on the wrong side of three big decisions on trade: happily signing a stimulus bill with Buy American provisions, abrogating an agreement allowing more Mexican trucks to operate in the US, and now granting the first ever emergency tariffs under a particular “safeguard” measure in US law. All are damaging both to trade and to the US’s international standing. All risk inflaming protectionist sentiment at a sensitive time.
But if he can use his capital to achieve universal healthcare and begin to shift the visceral dislike of trade that has gripped large parts of the American public and their representatives on Capitol Hill, it might prove worth it. He is playing with fire, which has creative but also destructive power. Just like globalisation.
Beattie gets at an interesting proposition -- that stronger safety nets will make Americans more comfortable with globalization. You can certainly point to public opinion polling in support of this hypothesis.
It's a good argument, and it's the one I suspect Larry Summers and Tim Geithner told themselves after the tire decision was made. The thing is, I'm not sure whether it's politically accurate.
In my debates about trade over the years, I've talked with a lot of union activists on the other side of the fence. These are people dedicated to the protection of them and theirs -- and given the economic straits of their workers, I can't blame them. I know from talking with them, however, that a stronger social safety net will have zero effect on their trade position. Sure, they want health care -- but they also want to make sure that their union continues to exist as a viable political entity. Regardless of universal health care coverage, globalization eats away at the unionized employment sector in the United States. For unions in the 21st century, protectionism is not a policy position to be traded away -- it is at the core of their perceived interests. Health care will not affect that position.
Am I missing anything?
UPDATE: Noam Scheiber responds on TNR's blog to say that maybe I am missing something:
[T]he political context looms incredibly large here. Simply put, it's incredibly difficult to defend, much less expand, free trade in the middle of a deep recession. And this is the deepest since the 1930s. In that context, the best you can probably do is beat back the worst protectionist excesses and live to fight another day.
Which is to say, you can't just make a straight-forward point-by-point comparison between Bush and Obama. The question is, what would a pro-trade president do in the current political context? My point is that it's far from clear he or she would behave any differently from Obama.
Scheiber is absolutely correct that the curent political environment is hostile to trade -- but I'm not all that sure the environment was any less toxic in the early half of this decade. In December 2001, George W. Bush, flush from the success of the war in Afghanistan, possessing an approval rating above 80 percent and larding out pork like no one's business, secured the passage of Trade Promotion Authority through the GOP-controlled House of Representatives by a single vote. In 2005, CAFTA made it through the House by a two-vote margin.
Let's face it, however -- this debate is about the future. If Obama abstains from futher acts like the tire tariff, I'll concede that I've overreacted. If there's more of this to come, then I think Scheiber will have underreacted.
My latest column for The National Interest Online is now available. It takes a longer look at the implications of Obama's tire tariff decision. The more I look at this move, the more freaked out I get. I think I've figured out the precise contours of Obama's trade strategy -- and trade plays a very small role:
With Obama... this dip in the protectionism pool feels like the beginning of something much greater. Many Democrats feel warm and fluffy about protectionism, as a mechanism to improve labor standards or an ironclad guarantor of union jobs. This love affair isn’t going to stop. Thea Lee, the chief economist of the AFL-CIO, told the New York Times that “the trade decision was the president’s first down payment on his promise to more effectively enforce trade laws, and it’s very much appreciated.” Unions are already demanding additional action against Chinese steel....
All presidential administrations engage in protectionism—it’s often the cost of pushing through other forms of trade liberalization. While the previous two administrations engaged in these kinds of actions, they could proudly point to ambitious agendas of trade liberalization as well. The Clinton administration sought to add contentious labor and environmental side agreements to its trade deals—but Clinton also spent political capital to get NAFTA and the Uruguay round through Congress. Bush imposed the steel tariffs—but his administration also secured the passage of (now expired) trade promotion authority, launched the Doha round, and completed major trade agreements with Australia and Central America. President Bush also rejected this action against Chinese tires on four separate occasions.
Barack Obama has no record of trade liberalization to fall back on when defending this measure. Indeed, this is the first major trade action his administration has taken. Based on the political reporting of this trade action, it seems clear that Obama will use trade policy as a sop to his base in order to keep them behind his major policy initiatives on health care, financial regulation, and environmental protection.
Obama has largely decided to become a domestic-policy president. His supporters, his base and the politicking of his underlings indicate things will only get worse. With the global economy in deep crisis, protectionism is a terrible way to build a recovery.
When the Obama administraton announced the decision to slap a 35% tariff on Chinese tire imports, I was pretty sure that free traders would be incensed. And I haven't been disappointed -- even the financial markets are freaking out over this one.
We trade enthusiasts are an excitable lot, however, what with everything leading to the falling off of cliffs, crossroads being reached, and red zones being breached. Seven years ago, the allegedly free-trade Bush administration imposed steel tariffs that were found to be WTO-inconsistent. There was a lot of gnashing of teeth and wailing at the time about the end of the open economy as we knew it -- yet the world trade system proved to be pretty robust. So maybe my trade compatriots are exaggerating things a wee bit, yes? In all likelihood, won't this be resolved via the WTO dispute settlement mechanism about 18 months from now?
For the first eight months of the Obama administration, I've been resisting the urge to shout "protectionism" at the drop of the hat. This time, however, there are four reasons why I'm feeling much more nervous:
1) This isn't your garden-variety protectionism. Last month, Chad Bown explained the Financial Times why this decision was a very special kind of protectionism:
[A] little-known loophole in the rules governing China’s 2001 WTO accession makes it easy for a global protectionist response to spread faster and further than that which took hold in 2002. Nowadays, once any one country imposes a China safeguard on imports, all other WTO members can immediately follow suit, without investigating whether their own industries have been injured.
So this trade dispute can metastasize more quickly than most.
2) Beijing is not lying down on this. China's furious and swift reaction points to another problem: the United States is not the only country feeling protectionist urges at the moment. Economic nationalism in China is riding quite high at the moment, as Keith Bradsher suggests in the New York Times:
The Chinese government’s strong countermove followed a weekend of nationalistic vitriol against the United States on Chinese Web sites in response to the tire tariff. “The U.S. is shameless!” said one posting, while another called on the Chinese government to sell all of its huge holdings of Treasury bonds....
China had initially issued a fairly formulaic criticism of the tire dispute Saturday. But rising nationalism in China is making it harder for Chinese officials to gloss over American criticism.
“All kinds of policymaking, not just trade policy, is increasingly reactive to Internet opinion,” said Victor Shih, a Northwestern University specialist in economic policy formulation.
Methinks Shih and Bradsher are exaggerating things a wee bit -- imagine for a moment if U.S. foreign policy was driven by people getting upset on the Internet -- but you get the point.
The U.S. use of this provision is doubly troubling, because from Beijing's perspective their WTO accession negotiations were seen as a humiliating kowtow to the power of the West. China is not going to be selling its bonds anytime soon, but Beijing has not quite mastered how to cope with these kinds of domestic pressures, so they could do something really, really stupid.
3) Politically, Obama has boxed himself in. As egregious as the Bush steel tariffs were, they were targeted at a sector and not a country. Furthermore, the Bush administration responded to the hubbub very quickly by watering down the worst effect of the tariffs.
The Obama administration's new tariff is expressly directed at China. And I'm not saying that China is blameless here. But because it's country-specific, the administration has less room to maneuver -- either the tariffs are applied against China or they aren't. It can't walk this back without it looking like a flip-flop. Which means that there's little room for concession or negotiation.
4) Obama's base scares me on trade. When the Bush administration did what it did, it was fulfilling a campaign promise to the state of West Virginia steelwokers. Fortunately, the rest of Bush's winning political coalition was not seeking trade relief. So the protectionist instinct pretty much ended with the steel tariffs -- and everyone in the Bush administration knew that they'd be overturned by the WTO eventually.
With the Obama administration, however, this feels like the tip of the iceberg. Most of Obama's core constituencies want greater levels of trade protection for one reason (improving labor standards) or another (protecting union jobs). This isn't going to stop. "Trade enforcement" has been part and parcel of Obama's trade rhetoric since the campaign. The idea that better trade enforcement will correct the trade deficit, however, is pure fantasy. It belongs in the Department of Hoary Political Promises, like, "We'll balance the budget by cracking down on tax cheats!" or "By cutting taxes I can raise government revenues!" It. Can't. Happen.
If I knew this was where the Obama administration would stop with this sort of nonsense, I'd feel a bit queasy but chalk it up to routine trade politics. When I look at Obama's base, however, quasiness starts turning into true nausea.
Developing.... in a very, very scary way.
I read with great interest the Wall Street Journal story entitled "A President as Micromanager" about Barack Obama's decision-making style -- and had the exact same reaction as Noam Scheiber:
The big problem is that the piece conflates two very different things: One is micromanaging, which involves making decisions that are well below your pay-grade. The other is wanting detailed information on which to base decisions that are at precisely your pay grade. The Journal story presents lots of evidence for the latter; zero evidence for the former....
If I had to guess, I'd say what happened is that the Journal found itself with a nice story about the way Obama makes decisions, but that it seemed too positive. As the piece itself notes: "Unavoidably, the accounts all come from people who admire Mr. Obama, not from his critics, who aren't privy to such sessions." The "micromanager" frame was presumably added somewhere along the way to correct for this problem and make the piece seem more even-handed.
Indeed. For all the puff pieces on Obama's management style, this article suffers from the reverse problem -- it tries to paint a negative frame and doesn't succeed because of the lack of evidence. Instead, the Obama in the WSJ story is someone who is intellectually curious, eager for data (which, as Scheiber points out, is distinct from micromanaging) and naturally contrarian.
In other words, pretty much the opposite of the last person to occupy the Oval Office. Which is fine with me.
You'd think I would have something very deep to say about former President Clinton's recent excursion to Pyongyang to secure the release of two U.S. journalists. Well, I have four reactions, but I'm not sure how deep they are:
Foreign policy should be conducted free of emotion, so I'm hoping that this feeling will fade fast. I'm willing to bet I'm not the only one who had this reaction, however. I'm therefoe betting that beyond providing fodder for Maureen Dowd during the dog days of August, this little rescue mission is going to complicate nuclear diplomacy with North Korea for a spell.
In a legen -- wait for it -- dary blog post, Belle Waring mentioned the pony problem in public policy. Namely, "an infallible way to improve any public policy wishes. You just wish for the thing, plus, wish that everyone would have their own pony!"
I bring this up because of David Sanger's New York Times story about the prospects of imposing a gasoline embargo on Iran:
The Obama administration is talking with allies and Congress about the possibility of imposing an extreme economic sanction against Iran if it fails to respond to President Obama's offer to negotiate on its nuclear program: cutting off the country’s imports of gasoline and other refined oil products....
But enforcing what would amount to a gasoline embargo has long been considered risky and extremely difficult; it would require the participation of Russia and China, among others that profit from trade with Iran. Iran has threatened to respond by cutting off oil exports and closing shipping traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, at a moment that the world economy is highly vulnerable.
The rest of the story is kind of irrelevant -- because without China and Russia, this is just a theoretical exercise. In fact, here's a good time-saver: if you read any story about a gasoline embargo o Iran, just scan quickly and get to the part where the reporter explains how and why Russia and China would go along. If it's not mentioned, the story is inconsequential.
If you want China and Russia to agree to sanctions, should you wish for the free pony as well? Here the growth of dissent in Iran complicates an already complicated picture. I'm betting that Moscow and Beijing have observed the "Death to Russia!" and "Death to China!" chants among the protestors. This is likely going to make them even more reluctant to do anything that undermines the current regime (even if this hurts their long-term interests). Which a gasoline embargo would most certainly do.
Do I think a gasoline embargo is a good idea? Absolutely. Do I think it will happen? No, I don't.
Just as TNR's
precise transcription of Denis McDonough's talking points long disquisition about the Obama administration's policy planning process comes out, Roger Cohen unfurls his long-form essay in the New York Times Magazine about the administration's thinking on Iran, the Middle East, and U.S. foreign policy.
Here's the bigthink of Cohen's essay:
Just how far Obama is ready to go in engagement’s name has become clearer in Iran. At the time of that Thursday demonstration, almost a week after the election, the toughest thing he had found to say about the turmoil was that the suppression of peaceful dissent “is of concern to me and it’s of concern to the American people.” He had also equated Ahmadinejad with Moussavi, from the U.S. national-security standpoint, because both support the nuclear program, even as people died for the greater openness that Moussavi espoused.
A sobered America is back in the realpolitik game. A favored phrase in the Iran team goes, “It is what it is.” Now the question is whether such an approach can yield results. Can Ross honor his own precept to match objectives with “available means”? To the nuclear clock has been added a democracy clock, complicating every diplomatic equation. An Iran of mullahs and nukes has morphed, for many Americans, into the Iran of beautiful, young Neda Agha-Soltan, cut down with a single shot while leaving a June 20 demonstration, a murder caught on video that went viral. Whatever Obama’s realism — and it’s as potent as his instinct for the middle ground — a president on whom so much youthful idealism has been projected can scarcely ignore the Neda effect.
All well and good, but there's a nugget buried in Cohen's tale that wories me juuust a bit. As fans of Laura Rozen are aware (and if you're not a fan, you should be), Barack Obama had a disappointing meeting with Saudi King Abdullah last month:
[T]wo sources, one a former U.S. official who recently traveled there and one a current official speaking anonymously, say the meeting did not go well from Obama's perspective. What's more, the former official says that Dennis Ross has told associates that part of what prompted Obama to bring him on as his special assistant and NSC senior director for the "Central Region" last month was the president's feeling that the preparation for the trip was insufficient.
Ok, except that after reading Cohen's story, I can't help but wonder whether Ross was part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Here is Cohen's description of Ross' meetng with the Saudi King -- which occured six weeks before Obama's:
On April 29, in Dammam, in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, Ross sat down with King Abdullah. He talked to a skeptical monarch about the Obama administration’s engagement policy with Iran — and talked and talked and talked. When the king finally got to speak, according to one U.S. official fully briefed on the exchange, he began by telling Ross: “I am a man of action. Unlike you, I prefer not to talk a lot.” Then he posed several pointed questions about U.S. policy toward Iran: What is your goal? What will you do if this does not work? What will you do if the Chinese and the Russians are not with you? How will you deal with Iran's nuclear program if there is not a united response? Ross, a little flustered, tried to explain that policy was still being fleshed out.
When the Saudis are accusing you of being all hat and no cattle, you know you have a problem.
Seriously, let's think about this from Abdullah's perspective for a second. A new envoy comes to chat filled with new plans and ideas on Iran. Except it turns out that these new plans and ideas haven't been filled out exactly -- key contingecies haven't been thought through, etc. For a leader who had to deal with eight years of George W. Bush, this had to sound a lot like U.S. foreign policy déjà vu. Why should he have been more forthcoming with Obama.
So, just to be clear, Obama found that meeting unsatisfactory -- and as a result he brings in the guy who might have laid the groundwork for the unproductive meeting?
Look, Ross is a smart guy, and he might have ust had a bad day when he met with Abdullah. But there are times when the Obama administration, for all the talk about embtracing realpolitik,* doesn't sound terribly realist at all.
*Granted, there are other points in the essay where the administration sounds positively Waltzian.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.