Among members of the foreign-policy community, there has always been a hierarchy of interests. Security has always trumped economics except in times of great crisis. Once Soviet affairs topped the pecking order among regional specializations with the Middle East and European affairs nipping at its heels. Today, China and the Middle East top the list with Europe, Japan, and the other BRICs following behind.
Latin America and Africa have always been stepchildren awarded less top policymaker bandwidth, fewer high level missions, and drawing fewer of the really first tier rising talents of the policy community. Every so often, a regional issue would flair up -- often one associated with another region or global agenda item like spill from the Middle East to the Maghreb or fighting communists in Central America or the Caribbean -- and there would be a scramble, but on the whole, the continents were seen as backwaters, the place where the careers of average to below average diplomats and idealistic but self-marginalizing do-gooders would go to be ignored and then die, generally unlamented. I'm not saying it was right nor am I suggesting that much great and worthy work did not get done in these places.
More importantly, I am not saying that the hierarchy was correct. If it were created in terms of the scale of the human challenges being faced or the future problems being created, these regions would surely have moved up the list.
This week, we have seen a couple of stories that suggest that draw our attention to Africa, one that is a rare but potentially profoundly important positive development, one that is more ominous.
While the bright lights and attentions of big time foreign-policy beat reporters have been focused on the prisoner swap in the Middle East, Hillary Clinton's visit to Libya or the latest economic challenges being faced in Europe, almost certainly the most important story of the week in terms of world affairs was the news of a successful, large-scale test of a malaria vaccine. Malaria claims 800,000 lives a year, 90 percent of which are children in Africa. The vaccine, developed by GlaxoSmithKline, successfully prevented half of 6,000 babies tested from getting the disease over the course of a year. This could be a major breakthrough with profound economic and social consequences for the region -- literally millions of lives spared over the decade ahead and millions of more able contributors to society.
If this initial test leads to a viable, widely deployed vaccine, it could be transformational and would represent a watershed success for the global public health community -- for government programs and efforts of NGOs like the Gates Foundation -- and would be just the latest proof that the really big scale international policy wins are happening nowhere near the high profile discussions among many of the usual suspects of the international affairs community. If you are young and want to get involved in foreign-policy initiatives that will touch the most lives look to global public health, climate issues, resource related questions like those pertaining to water or food. These are where the great victories will be won even if they won't get you invited to the most think tank cocktail parties in Washington.
That said, it may well be that the subject on the tips of the tongues at those parties may soon be a different dimension of Africa. While the announcement this week that the United States was sending 100 armed advisors to Uganda to finally help snuff out the scourge that is Joseph Kony, commander of the "Lord's Resistance Army." Kony's brutal band has been responsible for the forced dislocation of millions, the impoundment of more than 65,000 children into his military service, and vast numbers of deaths. The Obama administration has, to its great credit, been targeting Kony with sanctions and other forms of international pressure and its decision to get involved in a more direct way here is welcome, especially given the great scale of the human tragedy associated with the wars of the past two decades in central Africa and the great shame associated with the comparatively minimal and ineffective involvement of the developed world in attempting to stop the violence.
But the intervention also comes shortly after the United States has announced new drone bases in Africa, after our intervention with our allies in Libya, and alongside much greater diplomatic and other involvement in the region associated with growing concerns about the presence of terrorist groups like al Qaeda not only in the horn of Africa but in places like Nigeria. There is much deeper concern about the potentially destabilizing effect of well-funded terrorist involvement in the churning, difficult to police, failed and failing states and regions across Africa's midsection.
Talk to top military brass involved in America's European command and they will tell you that they expect that in the future, Africa will be an ever-greater focus for U.S. and allied involvement for all these reasons and due to the growing resource competition that is taking place across the continent. It is becoming a more strategically valuable place and its chronic problems are opening it up to being the site of future conflicts that demand much greater attention from the United States than we have ever given it.
Add to that the turmoil in the strategically important countries of the Maghreb and the promise of greater economic growth on the continent should we actually successfully begin to manage some of the problems of disease that have impeded growth (as new infrastructure and access to technology empowers more effective education and job creation) and it seems clear that for both good reasons and bad, Africa's place in the hierarchy of interests among U.S. policy makers is likely to be rising for the foreseeable future.
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If mathematics is the universal language, here are a few numbers that should communicate volumes to all:
That's the approximate number of employees in the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. And according to the Washington Post's lead story today, that means more people are now doing counter-terror work for our Central Intelligence Agency than there are as members of al Qaeda. How's that for a tenth anniversary message about America's response to the 9/11 attacks? Personally, I think it is just great and an appropriate use of U.S. national security resources, these couple of thousand of people will do vastly more to contain the terror threat than most of the hundreds of thousands we deployed in old-style land ground wars in the Middle East.
As it happens, 2000 is also the estimated number of militants and civilians killed by U.S. drone attacks. The use of drones along with the application of intelligence assets above are among the ways America is better learning how to contain the terror threat. Of course, the civilian death toll, the violation of the air space of sovereign nations and the moral implications of rich nations being able to wage war against poor ones without putting the lives of their own people at risk are all questions hanging in the air like the drone that circled above Osama bin Laden's residence in the hours before he died.
That, of course, is the current jobless rate in the United State, an ominous figure as we enter this Labor Day weekend. But much worse are numbers like...
16.7 and 16.4
Those respectively are the official numbers regarding unemployed blacks and unemployed young people in America. In cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, old hubs of the industrial Midwest, the official numbers are above 25 percent. And of course, being official numbers, we know they are wrong. They don't include those who have stopped looking for jobs and dropped out of the labor force altogether. They don't include the under-employed. The real numbers are much higher. In fact they are so much higher that they are not actually numbers any more. They are a social crisis, a breakdown that is tearing apart the fabric of America, crushing hopes and inviting backlash of a type we haven't seen in decades. Which leads us to...
Which is the gut-wrenchingly high ... appalling ... failure-of-our-system type .... percentage of black young people who were out of work in August. And all these unemployment numbers lead us in turn to...
0 and 0
Which is both the number of net new jobs created in August ... and also happens to be Barack Obama's percentage chances of re-election if these job numbers do not improve measurably over the next 12 months. Having said that, it's always good to have a Plan B in mind. Which explains, I suppose, why White House chief of staff Bill Daley reportedly arranged a below-the-radar retreat in June for his senior team at Fort McNair with historian Michael Beschloss as a guest speaker to help answer the one question on everyone's mind: "How does a U.S. President win re-election with the country suffering unacceptably high rates of unemployment?"
51 and counting
That's number of months since George W. Bush's EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said that existing Federal smog standards "do not adequately protect the public." It's "and counting" because today President Obama put a stop -- until at least after the 2012 elections -- to the EPA's plan to issue new ozone standards despite the fact that his own EPA team had been working on them intensively for over two years now. The EPA has said (in each of the past four years) that a new smog standard would provide between $13 billion and $100 billion in health benefits at a cost of $19 billion to $90 billion. Further, the pushback leaves the U.S. again lagging on a global environmental regulatory issue -- ozone -- gaining in importance almost everywhere else. It is also a sign that the President (see the above numbers) is starting to see everything to through the lens of the above job numbers (and his poll numbers that are directly linked to them.) For their part, Republicans on the Hill and corporate voices up and down K Street that have been hammering home the point about potential job losses associated with the possible new regulations were heard cheering. Congressman Fred Upton, the House's energy honcho calling it a "welcome breakthrough."
Nothing teaches skepticism of the advice of military leaders like the experience of warfare. President Lincoln discovered it. Roosevelt did too. So did Truman, Kennedy and Johnson. It was not unpatriotic for them to challenge their generals. On the contrary, by the end of World War II, an entire generation, well-versed in the fallibility of their commanders, sought out government officials who wouldn't hesitate to challenge them.
Recently, in the United States, a different phenomenon has been in play. It is considered almost sacrilege to publicly question the top brass. "Trust the generals" is almost a mantra among the current crop of Republican candidates for commander-in-chief (with the notable exception of the sporadically acute Ron Paul, who seems to have a somewhat firmer grasp on the concept of the chain of command and the reason for civilian leadership of our defense establishment).
Some of this reflexive deference is no doubt a product of genuine respect. But some is a product of the post-9/11 outbreak of jingoism that has distorted U.S. political debate and national security thinking for the past decade.
Generals and admirals are, of course, a diverse lot and the U.S. is fortunate to have some leading our military who are not only among their profession's best worldwide but who are also among the first tier of all public servants anywhere. But some are, naturally, not up to snuff, and furthermore, the military, like other branches of government, is susceptible to group think and to rendering decisions too colored by their own culture or self-interests.
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Robert Gates may well be the best secretary of defense the United States has ever produced. He has had an extraordinary national security career, distinguishing himself not only in terms of its duration or the number of senior positions he has held but even more so in terms of the quality of his service. He is capable, exceptionally intelligent, and an unhesitating truth-teller to presidents.
That is why it is important to very carefully weigh his statement on Monday that in Afghanistan "we've still got a ways to go and I think we shouldn't let up on the gas too much, at least for the next few months." Clearly, it reflects a belief on his part -- days before his departure from office -- that continued application of U.S. military force at present levels of intensity could speed the movement of the Taliban to the negotiating table and thus make reconciliation talks and potential stability in that country more feasible sooner.
He is in a better position than almost anyone to make that judgment given the constant stream of intelligence and feedback he gets from his generals on the ground. That his view is apparently shared by General David Petraeus, America's top commander there, adds credence to it.
"If we keep the military pressure on through this winter," he was quoted as saying in the Washington Post, "and we are able to hang on to what we've taken away from these guys over the last year to 18 months...then it may be that sometime around the end of this year these guys decide maybe we ought to start talking seriously about reconciliation. That certainly is my hope."
It is an understandable hope for a man who has devoted so much time to finding the best possible outcome for the United States in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, in this instance, Gates has it wrong. First, there is the issue of who he means by "these guys." While some elements of the Taliban and other anti-government forces in Afghanistan might be coaxed to the negotiating table as a consequence of further applied pressure from the U.S. military, it is almost certainly the case that these will neither be representative of the whole of anti-United States, anti-Karzai-government opposition nor will they be drawn from the most extremist and potentially disruptive elements from among our current enemies.
Further, even if such a group were to come to the table there is neither any guarantee that talks would be productive nor is there any that winning an extension in power for Karzai or some power-sharing government would actually ultimately make Afghanistan any more stable or any less likely to become a haven for terrorist groups. Given that the United States and our allies are unwilling to stay indefinitely and that we have set a deadline of 2014 for departure, a deadline so close as to virtually guarantee we can not know the viability of any regime established in the next year or two, we will have little long-term leverage to ensure the outcome Gates believes we should wait longer to attempt to produce.
Finally, most importantly, 2014 is effectively now. If you are in the Afghan opposition -- a Taliban or a restless warlord or mischievous Pakistani ISI officer with an agenda -- Gates' message sounds a lot different to you than it does to American audiences. To Americans it sounds like "let's get out slowly." But to the committed extremist all they hear is "let's get out." What's a few more months when you have been fighting for a decade...longer still since many of those fighting see this as a continuation of a war with the Russians that began more than three decades ago?
Go slow or go fast, they think, in three winters the invaders will be gone and the rules will change rapidly.
It is unreasonable to think that if ten years of waging this war have been so unfruitful that six or nine more months of perhaps 10,000 or 15,000 more troops will make much of a difference. And indeed, in the long run it will not and by leaving the troops there a little longer, by withdrawing a little more slowly, President Obama can say he listened to his generals, gave it every chance, and only then drew down more rapidly.
But lives will be lost in the interim. And every American troop on the ground costs roughly $1 million a year, so even a few thousand troops makes a difference of billions in expense to a strung-out U.S. budget. But more importantly, whatever the expense is, it is extremely unlikely to be effective and staying longer is likely to only have utility as a political exercise. The troops should go now, as fast as we can draw them down. We should not start with 5,000 troops, but a multiple of that. The New York Times piece today suggesting a group was emerging within the National Security Council advocating a more aggressive withdrawal is encouraging.
What seems likely to happen is that the president will stick with Gates and Petraeus on this but will try to send a message by announcing larger interim targets. It would be the kind of effort at balancing conflicting views with which the president has seemed most comfortable in the past. One set of headlines might read: the president sticks with military pull-out approach in the near-term while another says, the president will be more aggressive in getting out in the medium term.
Whatever the decision, the one thing that is certain is that for the United States, there is no long term in Afghanistan. This one is done. To paraphrase the old joke, we've already established whether this war is successful or not, now we're just haggling over the final price.
There was a quote yesterday in the Washington Post from that ever-talkative "unnamed official" who is responsible for much of the news that comes out of the White House. It was regarding the national security personnel shuffle. Mr. Chatty Facelessness referred to the new picks as "The strongest possible team to exercise our strategies and polices. I stress the word team."
You can see why he wanted to be on background on that. He was really sticking his neck out.
Of course, even an anodyne self-serving observation can be a bit of a minefield when the terms it uses and the ideas it references are so full of unintended meaning and consequence.
First, there is the reference to "the strongest possible team." While the uninitiated might think the operative word there was "strongest" it is clearly "possible." Because by no means is this the strongest group of appointees on which the president could have settled. While I think the choices are very solid ones, neither Panetta nor Petraeus has any appreciable experience in the agencies they are being asked to run, nor even in the fields associated with those agencies. Suggesting that somehow military affairs and intelligence matters are substantively the same because they are both associated with national security is like suggesting the culture within the Pentagon is the same as or compatible with that inside CIA headquarters because they both happen to be on the opposite side of the Potomac River from the rest of the Washington bureaucracy. There are clearly other choices who would have brought more directly relevant experience to the jobs in question.
But the president wanted continuity, he didn't want battles with the Congress, he didn't want to risk bringing in a complete outsider, he doesn't have a huge network of acquaintances with much experience in either area, his close advisors were distrustful of being too adventurous with the choices and so among the available, vetted, and capable within the Obama-verse, these were "the strongest possible." Of course that suggests that Hillary Clinton either would not have been a "stronger" choice at Defense or that she was not a "possible" choice and I will leave it to you to ponder why that might be so.
In fact, for those following the machinations of the Obama national security team closely, that last point brings us directly to the rhetorical flourish that lies at the heart of the bland but nonetheless unattributed observation: "I stress the word team." It is clearly intended to emphasize the high premium the president places on effective "no drama" collaboration within his administration. On this, it can be taken at face value as this is a real priority for Obama who is notoriously uncomfortable with discord in meetings in which he participates. But the subtext for observers of this team and this smooth process is that for all the merits of such a well-managed approach to problem solving is that process alone is not enough.
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It would be too easy to say that Barack Obama has been a big loser so far since the onset of operations against the Qaddafi regime in Libya. It would also be wrong. The Obama administration has mishandled many elements of the crisis, but nothing they have done wrong thus far is irreversible and in terms of the simple objectives of imposing a no-fly zone and containing Qaddafi, the effort has been effective.
Further, whatever the criticism of Obama may be, his intentions have been both defensible and sound: The desire to forestall a humanitarian disaster and to do so through multilateral mechanisms were worthy and responsible goals. The challenge thus far has been in the execution ... although clearly, the risks going forward remain high and were this to result in a protracted U.S. involvement, unacceptable costs, a stalemate on the ground that left Qaddafi in power or the installation of a new government that ultimately proved to be as bad or worse for U.S. interests than its predecessors, then we would have to revisit our list.
Meanwhile, at this stage of the game, the five biggest losers associate with the whadeveryacallit (see Jay Carney's convolocution above) are:
Much as the Libyan people were only the number five beneficiary of events so far in our winners list because the outcome is so uncertain, Qaddafi is only the number five loser of the major international military onslaught targeting his regime because it is not certain how this will all end up for him. With the UN's promise not to put boots on the ground, Qaddafi's tenure in office could be a long one and absent a "lucky" missile strike or a major increase in the effectiveness of opposition forces, a stalemate in which he retains considerable power over important chunks of Libya seems a strong possibility. Another alternative which might not be so bad is exile and the prospect of living with billions of dollars and all the Ukrainian nurses that can buy (which is a lot). So, while the most advanced military forces in the world are working against him, right now Muammar still is clinging to hope of a better tomorrow ... or any tomorrow ... which could prove to be a very unsatisfactory outcome from the political perspective of some of his leading international adversaries. That said, my money is on him not surviving as Libya's leader and in any event all his attempts at remaking his image over the past half decade have been undone and he has been permanently restored to his much deserved lunatic pariah status.
While the forces in the field have been performing admirably, the early days of this operation in terms of the alliance's political operations haven't been pretty. The world's most important, powerful, experienced, best-equipped military alliance has all the toys a middle-aged coalition could want but someone seems to have misplaced the instruction manual for smooth establishment of a command structure. From the minute they committed to this there have been arguments about who is in charge, about goals, about tactics, about basing, about burden-sharing, about virtually everything that alleged friends could possibly fight about. While the attacks NATO has carried out have apparently been effective, it is still unclear whether in the long-term they will be making the region any safer. Further, and more damagingly, they have revealed real problems in the ability of the alliance to work together on the kinds of conflicts with which they are most likely to be confronted in the near future. The apparent decision, a week into the crisis, to put a clear NATO command structure to be in charge helps matters considerably ... but the delays in getting there also underscore the kind of fault-line issues bedeviling the participating countries. This will all be papered over once this draws to a close but going forward, resistance of countries like Germany and Turkey to participation in undertakings like this could remain high for some time to come.
3. Arab League
Not that they had much credibility to begin with and not that many people expected much of them when it came to championing either democracy or even the basic human rights of the people of their region, but the Arab League at least during the early days of this operation did the near impossible and reduced the value of their role as a force of good within their region by their inability to follow up on their welcome promise of playing a key role in containing Qaddafi. Again, it's possible that they could undo the damage that has been done by stepping up their commitment of men and materiel to the mission -- and today's welcome announcement of substantial air support from the UAE buttresses the commitment of the Qataris in important ways -- but there are plenty in the coalition who acted in response to their promises who are absolutely furious at how so many members of the League have proven to be all keffiyeh and no camel on this issue. (A reference to the old Texas slam about posturing would-be ranchers who were "all hat and no cattle" for those of you wondering where I was going with that.)
Viewing points 3 and 4 above, one can't help but worry that at the dawn of what could be a new era in international affairs, an essential idea has been set back by messy execution. In the wake of the Iraq debacle, America and the world both were motivated to move away from the ugly inequities of a one superpower world dominated by a we-can-do-it-all-ourselves USA. The only alternative was better sharing of responsibilities for decision-making and problem-solving when it came to global problems. Barack Obama's willingness to embrace that new approach in the face of this first real 3 a.m. phone call type crisis of his presidency was welcome and the right thing to do but it could produce more damage than good if critics ultimately feel we did the right thing in the wrong way. If the message about multilateralism is that it is slow or messy or costly or politically damaging, it will not only become harder to rally allies in the future but in the U.S. unilateralists will have a case in point to use when next they want to drop the hammer on someone without benefit of the blessing of the international community.
It is a good thing that William Safire, the New York Times redoubtable lover of words and their meanings is dead because if he weren't the White House press statements on this crisis would have killed him. We don't have to start with the good and capable Jay Carney's ill-considered coherence-limited characterization of the Libya conflict cited in the title of this post. We can turn to Ben Rhodes' clarity-challenged clarification of whether or not the U.S. was seeking regime change cited in an earlier post this week. Or we can go to Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough's appearance on the PBS NewsHour which was described by the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin as "He was asked questions. He answered them. And in the end you had no idea what he said." (For our international readers let me note that the Washington Post is not seen as a crazy right wing mouthpiece of the Republican Party.) Speaking however of crazy Republicans, they are not immune from the disease currently affecting Washington, either. Take Newt Gingrich who may have finally stuck a stake through the heart of his already slim chances of being a credible candidate for president when he offered two completely contradictory positions on intervention in Libya within the course of a couple of weeks. (Although his creative "patriotism excuses infidelity" stance -- also known as the flag-made-me-do-it excuse for cheating on your cancer-stricken wife -- is likely to ensure him a few male votes should he ever run.) It is almost as if the underlying foundation of the United States's current foreign policy is Newton's Third Law of Motion, paraphrased to suggest that for each guiding principle of our actions there is an equal and opposite principle to which we also adhere. We're leading and we're not. We're for regime change and we're against. We're for democracy in some places but not in others. For those seeking comfort, there are always the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." For those worried by the trend outbreak of double-talk there is however the fact that Fitzgerald offered that observation in an essay called "The Crack-Up."
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Where's Donald Rumsfeld when you need him? Once upon a time, the irrepressible former Defense Secretary insured his enshrinement in Barclay's Familiar Quotations with the line:
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."
It was hilariously convoluted. As it happens, it also made some sense if you parsed it. Which puts it leagues ahead of the clarification offered by the White House's Ben Rhodes today concerning what America's policy in Libya actually is. In short, what he said was: "I know we said we were for regime change but we're actually not for it except of course for the fact that it is our primary objective."
But let me let him say it for you because the painful, verbose, circular logorrhea of it all really needs to be experienced to be understood.
Given the fact that there has been some reporting off of a quote from the gaggle, the quote that says 'they underscored their shared commitment of helping provide the people of Libya the opportunity to transform their country by installing a system of government that is democratic and responsive to the will of the people,' we're clarifying, as we've said repeatedly, that the effort of our military operation is not regime change, that as we actually say in this READOUT, it's the Libyan people who are going to make their determinations about the future. We support their aspirations, their democratic aspirations, and have stated that Gaddafi should go because he's lost their confidence.
So, let's go to the chalk board and break that down, shall we? What had been said was that the administration was seeking to help the people of Libya "transform their country" by installing a new system of government. Now, Rhodes was explaining that the "effort" of the intervention ... by which he presumably meant the goal of the effort ... was definitely not regime change. That's not something we would do. In fact, noted Rhodes, we've been saying it over and over again. No, really, seriously, we would never support regime change. But just so we all would understand better, he went on to "clarify" that our effort is instead to support them in realizing their democratic objectives. The core objective of which is to replace the country's government. Which is why we have repeatedly stated that Qaddafi has got to go.
Oh, now I see. Regime change is not our goal. We are just intervening with the collective firepower of NATO in order to help the Libyans get rid of Qaddafi. Who really has to go. That's much clearer. Thank you very much.
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The Japanese nuclear crisis, though still unfolding, may, in a way, already be yesterday's news. For a peek at tomorrow's, review the testimony of General Keith Alexander, head of U.S. Cyber Command. Testifying before Congress this week and seeking support to pump up his agency budget, the general argued that all future conflicts would involve cyber warfare tactics and that the U.S. was ill-equipped to defend itself against them.
Alexander said, "We are finding that we do not have the capacity to do everything we need to accomplish. To put it bluntly, we are very thin, and a crisis would quickly stress our cyber forces. ... This is not a hypothetical danger."
The way to look at this story is to link in your mind the Stuxnet revelations about the reportedly U.S. and Israeli-led cyber attacks on the Iranian nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz and the calamities at the Fukushima power facilities over the past week. While seemingly unconnected, the stories together speak to the before and after of what cyber conflict may look like. Enemies will be able to target one another's critical infrastructure as was done by the U.S. and Israeli team (likely working with British and German assistance) targeting the Iranian program and burrowing into their operating systems, they will seek to produce malfunctions that bring economies to their knees, put societies in the dark, or undercut national defenses.
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The Washington Post characterized Robert Gates's announcement that the Pentagon will have to cut an additional $78 billion out of its budget over the next five years as a surprise. While the timing of the announcement might be described in those terms, the fact that the cuts are necessary was not. The military is clearly about to enter a new era, one that is very different in profound ways from the recent past.
As Gates characterized it, "what had been a culture of endless money … will become a culture of savings and restraint." But that description really only scrapes the surface of what is happening. Since December 1941, the U.S. defense establishment has pretty much had carte blanche when it has come to spending for two reasons. First, there was always a great overarching threat -- first World War II, then the Cold War -- and then later it was the threats associated with the "War on Terror." Periodically conflicts like those in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan would provide further justification for spending. And all along the U.S. economy was bustling forward, growing, creating jobs, enabling the check-writing to go on. The period between the fall of the USSR and 9/11 was an anomaly, but even during this time, there was the conflict in Bosnia, the need to keep a lid on Iraq, the slow receding of Cold War concerns, and the booming economy combining with Democratic unease about seeming soft on defense to keep the spigots open.
But now, the situation is different. For the first time in U.S. history, we haven't created a net new job in a decade. 132 million Americans were employed in 2000. 130 million are employed now. There has never been a decade like that in U.S. history. Further, wages have also suffered an unprecedented drop, the national debt has just topped $14 trillion, cities and states are teetering at the edge of the financial abyss, we have seen the market pull the rug out from under fiscally irresponsible allies in Europe, and as a result our appetite for spending has changed dramatically.
At the same time, we are leaving Iraq, and soon, with some luck and a little common sense, we will actually begin to leave Afghanistan. (I note that Democratic Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey of California just called Afghanistan a "national embarrassment," describing it as "an epic failure" and a "moral blight." While this is certain to stir up the dittoheads and jingoists, she not only has it about right, but I suspect her view will become mainstream much sooner than even many critics think is possible.)
We are also recalibrating our sense of the terrorist threat. That is not to say there is a sense it is smaller. Rather what is receding is the hysteria that prevailed in U.S. security-policy circles and in the public at large for the decade after the attacks on Wall Street and the Pentagon.
While we almost certainly underestimate some of the rising threats in the world -- from those associated with a revitalizing Chinese military and a more adventurous and not entirely constructive Chinese foreign policy to those associated with resource conflicts and new areas of regional instability from Central Asia to Africa -- they have not risen to the level of urgency to drive new spending.
And so America is, rightly, responsibly, entering this new Age of Limitations by setting priorities and cutting back.
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Update, 9/12/10: In the following post due to a mistake regarding which draft I submitted to be posted, a couple of key words were dropped that have been noted by several commenters. They refer to the paragraph regarding the mosque project in Lower Manhattan. What I intended to write (and had actually written in the draft that I mistakenly did not submit) was not "It is odious..." but instead "It may seem odious to some, but if our freedoms..." I appreciate those who noted the incongruity of the remark given that I was early and strongly on the record supporting the right of those supporting the Islamic Cultural Center to build it wherever they wanted to. As should be clear to anyone who reads this blog, I find the objections and efforts to block the cultural center to be what is really odious and that is the point that I would have made here were it not for my typo. Apologies.
A week ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote a piece for Newsweek entitled "What America Has Lost." It was subtitled "It's clear we overreacted to 9/11." As is typical for Zakaria, it is exceptionally thoughtful and well-argued. Its timely focus is on the enormous costs associated with building up the massive U.S. security apparatus that targeted a terrorist threat that was and is clearly overstated. Zakaria makes reference to the landmark Washington Post "Top Secret America" series that outlined how, in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, the United States has "created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent to $75 billion (and that's the public number, which is a gross underestimate.) That's more than the rest of the world spends put together."
Even today, nine years after 9/11, it took considerable courage for Zakaria to argue that we overreacted to the horrific events of that day. Given their scope and visceral impact on every American, it seemed in the days after the blows were struck that overreaction was impossible. But in the years that followed, the feelings seem hardly to have ebbed at all, and critiques of our national reaction are, with the exception of the near consensus that invading Iraq was wrong, considered almost unpatriotic -- nearly sacrilegious, in fact.
Yet I believe that Zakaria's column understates the problem. I attribute this to its appropriately limited focus rather than any narrowness of his perspective. It was, after all, just a single column in which he focused on making an important point about America's security priorities and the opportunity costs associated with our strategic overreaction. That said, the damage done by letting emotion and adrenaline get the best of us in the months and years after the attacks extends far beyond the distortion of foreign policy priorities or the impact on the U.S. federal budget.
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The Washington Post, like many Beltway watchers, took President Obama's statement that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel would make a "great mayor of Chicago" as an acknowledgement that Emanuel is as good as gone from his administration -- and that the typical midterm game of musical chairs that enlivens the West Wing has begun.
I take the statement as something different. I take it as a personal request from the President to me to let him know what changes he needs to make after the November elections.
So, let's begin with replacing Rahm. Rumor has it that Emanuel himself has been mentioning Valerie Jarrett, among the president's closest confidantes, for the job. While being as simpatico with the president as Jarrett clearly is would be a big plus, the chief of staff job has a massively tough management component to it that would undercut Jarrett's ability to remain the vital sounding board for the President she has become. Better suited to the job would be two of the other names mentioned: Ron Klain, the vice president's chief of staff, and Tom Donilon, the deputy national security advisor. Both are excellent, smart and proven administrative masters. Tom Daschle, former Democratic majority leader in the Senate, has also been mentioned. He played a vital role in the president's campaign and would add an important capacity for Hill outreach to the mix.
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Think tanks being what they are -- large meat lockers in which future government bureaucrats are stored until needed -- the reports they produce tend to be little more than exercises in reputation management. They state the obvious, then slather it in a bland, nutrient-free sauce of quasi-academic qualifications that seek to explain why they are really not saying anything new or practical. The best of them offer course corrections that are minuscule at best, and new ideas are as hard to find as honest politicians in the Karzai administration.
Which brings us to the latest such report to be issued, one that proves to be the exception to the rule. That report is "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan" from the New America Foundation. It is one of the very few such documents that I have recently read and found myself nodding at almost every turn of the page. It is so good that it almost restores my youthful belief in the potential benefits of putting smart people around a table and letting them cogitate and argue and bullshit and grapple with tough problems. Produced by a glittering group of wonks, it contains real thoughtful insights into America's situation in Afghanistan and comes to sound, generally implementable conclusions about what the United States should do to avoid making a very bad situation even worse.
The report is well summarized in an article by Steve Clemons, one of its architects, that appears in Politico. In short, it makes the case that spending $100 billion a year to fight a war we can't win in Afghanistan is just one of several reasons that America's policies are misguided and demand immediate correction. He writes, "Though Obama is more likeable, and often more inspiring, than the fictional captain in the Melville novel, Afghanistan has now become the Moby Dick to Obama's Ahab."
The report begins by revisiting the forgotten territory of America's initial reasons to be involved in the region in the first place. It correctly notes there are only two: preventing Afghanistan from being a staging ground for further terrorist attacks against the United States, and doing what we can to reduce the threat that Pakistani weapons of mass destruction might fall into the wrong hands. It argues correctly that if we focus on these two goals, then our mission, military and diplomatic presence in the region would and should look very different.
It makes five key recommendations. The first is promoting power sharing and political inclusion in a more decentralized Afghanistan: In other words, trying to work with rather than against the historical and cultural tides in the country. Second is downsizing and ending military operations in southern Afghanistan and reducing the military presence there. Third is focusing the military's attention on Al Qaeda, which is no longer really present in Afghanistan but remains an issue in Pakistan. (Notably, the New America group suggests using the cost-savings the drawdown would produce to bolster U.S. domestic security and contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction worldwide.) Fourth is encouraging the promotion of economic development, while emphasizing that this should be an internationally rather than U.S. led effort. (Hallelujah to that.) Finally, it recommends collaborating with influential states in the region to ensure Afghanistan is not dominated by "any single power or being permanently a failed state that exports instability." The report notes that those states -- Pakistan, India, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia -- aren't the best of pals, but suggests correctly that there are ways to work with each or even small clusters of them to promote these outcomes that are, for the most part, in their interests.
Point five is a bit of a stretch. Point four is more or less boilerplate, though worthy of emphasizing. The reality is that Afghanistan will become a strongman dominated quasi-failed state, but that as long as our core goals in the region -- the two mentioned above -- are met, then we should be less concerned with whatever structure produces an outcome supportive of them.
Personally, I think the international community needs to be involved actively in ensuring that whatever successor state emerges, the rights of all Afghans -- and notably women and tribal minorities -- are respected and protected. It is also true that Pakistan is the real problem and appropriate subject of U.S. attention in this region, and that this requires forthrightly addressing what diplomatic and force structure is required to promote stability and contain threats within that country.
But this report is clear-eyed, direct, well-argued and in its tone even more than its substance sends a message that the only door we should head for in that country is the one with the exit sign over it. In Clemons article he notes that the United States spends seven times Afghanistan's own GDP on our involvement there -- an amount equal to the cost of the recent U.S. health care legislation, and one that if saved could pay down the U.S. deficit in 14 years. The recklessness and irresponsibility of such a costly involvement, given America's other urgent priorities and the true nature of the threats within Afghanistan, makes the blood boil.
It does no dishonor to our military to wish their lives and services were available for other missions. Reports like this raise the hope that opinion is shifting in ways that may lead us to just such a desirable outcome.
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Reviewing the results of General David Petraeus's media blitz this weekend, you have to wonder if the folks in the White House might be wishing they were back in the good old days of the boneheaded media missteps and ham-fisted leaks of General Stanley "Got My Picture on the Cover of Rolling Stone" McChrystal.
(And if they don't understand why they should be ... then, well, you just have to wonder ...)
In particular, you would think they couldn't help but notice the tactical genius behind the general's latest -- media -- surge. Take one of its spotlight moments, the lead story in Monday's New York Times. Take the way he makes the case for resisting the impulse to pull out of Afghanistan:
General Petraeus said that it was only in the last few weeks that the war plan had been fine-tuned and given the resources it required. ‘For the first time,' he said, ‘we will have been working to put in place for the last year and a half.'"
The Times goes on to note that on "Meet the Press" the general even "appeared to leave open the possibility that he would recommend against any withdrawal of American forces next summer."
Let's consider: "...only in the last few weeks that the war plan had been fine-tuned." Really, general? So what was that yearlong policy review about? The past nine years of effort by U.S. military planners -- the last several of which have involved your active participation and supervision? This is the Charlie Sheen approach to military planning: just give me one more chance, please, just one more and I promise I'll get it right this time.
Let's consider: "...and given the resources it required." I see, you're saying that we've only now finished ramping up. But certainly the president, acting on your advice, recognized this moment was coming at the conclusion of that policy review, right? Or when he and others in his administration repeated promises that the drawdown would take place since then? In fact, wasn't the whole point of the president's new Afghan strategy that we would ramp up and then almost immediately transfer responsibilities to the Afghans and get out? Either you are suggesting that process, in which you played such a central role, was bungled or you are suggesting that the president and his advisors knew that the escalate-withdraw one-two punch of the articulated strategy was a have-it-both-ways scam.
In either case, what's up with generals discussing what their private advice to the president might be prior to discussing it with the president? What's up with generals seeming to make or "fine-tune" policy that might in time make things very awkward for the president? Petraeus is no doubt being honest about his views. But here's the point: Unlike McChrystal, he is a key validator for the president and thus has political heft that few others have. Especially after the McChrystal debacle, Petraeus' weight in the policy-making apparatus has gone up, particularly if he is as willing as he seems to be to conduct his efforts via the media.
What? You think the White House approved all this? OK, it's possible, I suppose. But let's go back to that "it's only in the past few weeks that the war plan has been fine-tuned." That would mean the White House okayed a statement that suggested that, 20 months into this administration, they were just now getting around to finalizing their plan for what is certainly their signature foreign policy initiative. Do they -- or the general -- really think that this "just give us one more try" approach is going to work with the American people after almost a decade of tragic losses and mind-boggling expense? In a war that can't be won?
Petraeus's behavior shouldn't come as that much of surprise. (In fact, I have said since he took on his new job that he would ultimately prove to be a much bigger challenge for the White House than McChrystal ever was -- in large part because of his stature, intellect, and candor.) After all, this is the man who appeared before Congress and said of the last war he was in charge of, "I don't know if war in Iraq makes Americans safer." Was he right to doubt it? Sure. Did his articulating that position help his civilian bosses? You can ask them if you can find them on their various book tours and other retirement activities.
Of course, the buzz over the general's weekend blitz through the nation's capital is secondary to a host of bigger issues here. To take just one example, it pales in comparison to the recent study done by the military examining the mind-boggling, heart-breaking fact that suicides exceed battlefield deaths among American Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. As the study concluded: "Simply stated, we are often more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy."
It's a tragedy that warrants much closer attention than it has gotten. It bespeaks a horrific breakdown in our system of caring for our veterans. But in wars like these -- with impossible, constantly shifting objectives, allies who are enemies and leaders who are constantly second-guessing either themselves or each other -- is it any wonder that we are the source of greatest danger to our own troops?
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I've recently laid my hands on the Obama administration's super secret Iran plan. Because it is highly classified, I can't offer all the details here. (Also, because there are very few details to begin with.)
The plan begins with the sanctions program that was approved Wednesday by the U.N. Security Council. It should be noted however, that after the description of the sanctions are a few hand-written notations. The deadlines, for example, have been struck through ... repeatedly. In fact, there are almost more deleted deadlines than there are deleted proposed sanctions. Almost. But there are actually scores of proposed elements that were one after one cut out of the program ranging from "petroleum products" to "anything that might negatively impact trade or relationships with China or Russia." In fact, the only original item in the sanctions program that remains intact is prohibiting Iranian television from airing episodes of the first season of Glee until early next year.
However, the sanctions are followed by the following note: "It is very unlikely that the sanctions program will work even if it is not eviscerated by our "partners" in the diplomatic process." (Here there are just a bunch of exclamation marks and the letters "LOL" in the margin.) It goes on to say: "We know this because a.) Sanctions programs rarely work; b.) When they do work they never work quickly enough to actually achieve our prime purpose here which is stopping the Iranian nuclear program; and c.) Because this will be the fourth set of sanctions, weaker than prior sets and therefore will be seen as a nothing more than a "used handkerchief" by the Iranians. Or anyone else."
And from there it goes on to say: "Nonetheless, these are our damn sanctions and even if they are an empty sham we cannot allow them to be upstaged by even the naïve and equally unlikely to succeed programs of others. Because such programs will both marginalize us and at the same time underscore the pointlessness of our efforts. Thus, even if we don't take forceful action to stop the Iranian nuclear program we must take forceful action to stomp out other programs that might seek to stop the Iranian nuclear program."
Next something is written about the necessity of having a forceful and credible military response in the event the sanctions don't work but this too is scribbled out. In the margin: "If we're backing toward the exit in Iraq and Afghanistan, who's going to believe any of this mouthwash? Just parrot the old "reserve all our options" formulas and hope people are too busy following whatever Charlie Sheen's latest scandal may be to notice how transparently impotent this all is."
Next the main body of the memo consists of a number of possible steps listed under "Program of Escalation." These are only to be implemented if the sanctions fail to markedly slow down Iranian nuclear progress. They include: "U.S. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice pointedly eats at a different table from the Iranian delegation in the United Nations cafeteria," then "Rice starts eating with the Turks to demonstrate we have friends in the Islamic world" (this has however, been crossed out), then "Robert Gibbs to complain that cable media have empowered the Iranians and cancels appearance on Morning Joe," then "Criminalization of possession of Iranian pistachios and spontaneous display of pouring pistachio ice cream into the street in front of SEIU headquarters," then "Public display of affection with Bibi Netanyahu" (also crossed out), then "President Obama tells touching story about how Malia tugged on his PJs and asked whether he had stopped that nasty Mahmoud from getting the bomb," then finally "President Obama delivers very tough speech employing soaring rhetoric declaring the success of our engagement program, punctuated with threats about 'kicking ass' and announcing the appointment of a bipartisan committee to explore 'forceful next steps' -- end with tight shot of clenched jaw."
After these there is a concluding paragraph which reads: If none of the above initiatives work see next memo (NSC document code redacted) entitled "Learning to Live with a Nuclear Iran."
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I'm just waiting for the following story or something like it to appear somewhere in the Afghan press really soon ...
"Petraeus Expresses Concern for 'Irreplaceable Ally' Karzai"
Kabul, April 10, 2010: During a news conference today, American CENTCOM Commander David Petraeus surprised reporters with a lengthy deviation from his prepared remarks denying yet again his intention of running for president of the United States. During the apparently impromptu comments before departing to fulfill a "long-standing commitment to vacation with my family in Des Moines, Iowa," Petraeus expressed "heartfelt" concern for the health of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Apparently, according to Petraeus, Karzai has recently been observed by "friends and family" to have become "so distracted by his deep commitment to supporting his NATO allies" that he has been increasingly absent-minded and clumsy. Petraeus cited reports saying that Karzai had "due to his commitment to democracy and battling corruption" on several occasions "stumbled and very nearly fell" near the top of long flights of stairs, open elevator shafts and in one case, an abandoned well.
"Given our unwavering support for our esteemed ally, a man who has become like a brother to me," said Petraeus, "we very much hope that the president is able to cut back on his speaking schedule and devote more time to quiet work at home lest he risk the kind of tragic accident for which he would only have himself to blame."
After the press conference, while visiting nearby Kandahar Country Day School for what his official schedule described as a "Counter-insurgency Training Session" during which the General demonstrated how to kiss babies and chuck them under the chin, Petraeus said, "I'm a student of these situations and we've seen other tragic cases in which our allies have become so zealous in their desire to fulfill our goals that they suffer tragic accidents. You may remember South Vietnamese President Diem forgetting to wear his seatbelt and suffering such unfortunate injuries on his way to a late night picnic outside of Saigon."
And while we're at it, wouldn't the following story be welcome in say, Italy's Corriere della Sera...
"Aging Pontiff Sneezes"
Vatican City, April 10, 2010: Cardinal Giuseppi Borgia, personal physician to His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, revealed today that the Pontiff seemed to be coming down with a cold. According to Borgia, the Pope was "suffering from the stress of a busy Easter Week schedule." Borgia's comments raised alarms among some Vatican observers, such as the Pope's personal pastor, Reverend Raniero Cantalamessa, who said, "not only is he a very old man, but what he's been through I wouldn't wish on a Jew." (The Holy See denied reports that Cantalamessa was being considered for the position of official Vatican spokesperson-despite an insensitivity and tone-deafness to legitimate public concerns that would make him ideally suited for such a post. Cantalamessa, of course, is best known for last week comparing the attacks on the Pope and the church condemning endemic child abuse with past examples of "collective violence" against the Jews. He is also reportedly a recent nominee for the Nobel Prize in Chutzpah given the Church's historic role in actually fomenting that violence not to mention his stunning inability to differentiate between victims and perpetrators of crimes. )
Said one cardinal who declined to be named, "Poor old Ratzy. He hasn't had it easy. First of all, John Paul II was a tough act to follow. Then there was the whole kerfuffle about his having been in the Hitler Youth, as if a young boy should not have a hobby. Then, the media started unfairly ganging up on the church ... as if priests shouldn't have young boys as their hobbies. Clearly, it's all the work of Satan because we have had Popes in the past who have been involved in much worse stuff-corruption, murder, wars, incest, schisms ... the Inquisition for goodness sakes. But they didn't have to contend with all these new media. I mean "twitter" ... what is that? A tool of darkness, that's what."
Others close to the Pope, however suggested that given his age and the likelihood that this cold could get worse, perhaps the Pope might want to think about an early retirement. Said Prof. Dr. Hermann Wilhelm von Richtoven, Director of the Bayerische Atemwegserkrankungen Klinik und Rheinische Rhinologie Krankenhaus and Personal Nasal Advisor to the Pope, "Well, you never know. He could get better. Maybe not. It's all a crapshoot. But if he tries to keep up with his current workload, he could be looking at something much worse. Sinusitis, perhaps. Or a RICO conviction. I'd say it was time to step aside and retire to a quiet life of study and prayer. If he does, the cold should clear up in no time."
Said one high church official who, like the Pope, was involved in determining the fate of American Reverend Lawrence Murphy who was accused of abusing 200 hearing impaired boys who were under his charge, "you know, a sniffle here a sniffle there and before you know it you might draw the conclusion that a room full of weeping deaf children are trying to tell you something."
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As promised -- trumpet fanfare -- "The Winners and Losers of the Decade." Or, as I like to think of it, "The Winners and Losers of the Oughts," in deference to the zeros in each year of the decade's numbering, the zeros who were in charge and all that we ought to have done that we did not do.
George W. Bush: It almost seems too easy. But upon reflection, it's not even close. Bush wasn't just born with a silver spoon in his mouth -- he inherited America, the world's sole superpower, with a budget surplus and clear skies ahead. When we were attacked on 9/11, the immediate consequence was unprecedented support for him and for the country. And yet, almost immediately thereafter, he started on a catastrophic set of missteps and bad decisions that had alienated the world by the end of his term. George W. Bush was not just the biggest loser produced by the American political system in the past decade, he was in all likelihood one of the worst presidents in American history and he presided over what was almost certainly the worst international relations calamity since, I don't know, maybe the Alien and Sedition Acts.
How did he get there? What was the worst of all the bad choices he made? Was it invading Iraq or picking Dick Cheney to be his vice president in the first place -- or more properly, letting Dick Cheney choose himself? In the literary biz, we call that foreshadowing ... but in the history biz they will almost certainly call it the beginning of the end for a president who undercut American stature like no other, compromised our historic values and at times, seemed like he could barely speak English.
Not only does he get my nod for loser of the decade in the United States, he takes the international crown as well. All hail George W. Bush. Thanks to his bumbling in the highest office in the land, he also achieved the rarest form of comic apotheosis: He became the punch line that didn't even need a joke. Sadly, for us all, it will always hurt when we laugh.
Al Gore and the American People: There are losers and then there are those who lost. For the remainder of our lives we will always wonder what might have been. Seldom have there been forks in the road of history as clear as the 2000 U.S. presidential elections. The difference between the two candidates was as thin as the sheet of paper on which the politically stacked Supreme Court reached its compromised decision. In retrospect, it is ever more clear that the election was stolen and America, and countless victims worldwide, were sent hurtling toward a destiny that we and they did not deserve. Gore later would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work battling climate change and has handled the defeat and its aftermath with a grace that would warrant the prize had he done nothing at all. But we cannot help but think how much more we would have done by now to combat climate change had he been in office, how much stronger our relations would be with the world, how many innocents killed by our wars in the Middle East would still be alive. It is the decade's defining political defeat.
It's the end of 2009, and not just the end of the year, but the end of the decade. A fact that has editors everywhere jonesing for lists ... who am I to disappoint? (Here is the first in a series of lists. Be on the lookout for big Hanukkah treat: The Winners and Losers of the Decade! Put that in your dreidle and spin it.)
Let's start with The Loveable Losers shall we? After all, while Vince Lombardi said that in football "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."In politics, most of the players are losers to begin with and watching them squirm is what makes Wolf Blitzer so damn irresistible. And that's not to speak of Gloria Borger or Chris Wallace. (Come to think of it, if those guys can make it in television, I have an idea: The Potato Channel. Wouldn't it be more fun to watch an entire field of tubers ripen and rot? That's reality television the average American viewer can relate to. Heck, the average American viewer is likely to think it's about them.)
And the Big Winners?
For all the debate of Afghanistan and troop levels and strategies and the views of Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, there are two vital facts that have been ignored. First, we are missing the one general who is probably most essential to our ability to ultimately achieve our goals in Afghanistan (including leaving) and we are ignoring the army that will not only be most useful to that general, but also the army that happens to be the largest in both of our Middle Eastern theaters of war.
More troubling still is that the general could have and should have been appointed by the president and approved by the Congress many months ago, but the position has been allowed to remain open throughout a critical period. And the army is more or less entirely within the control of the U.S. government and yet we lack the proper mechanisms to command or control it.
Whether our goal in Afghanistan is counterinsurgency or counterterrorism, whether we are "all in" or "all out" (or something in between), whether we are there for the long haul or the short term, there are nonetheless a few things all can agree upon. We need a stronger central government in Kabul and to become stronger the government will need to better provide services, strengthen existing institutions and win the support of the Afghan people. Infrastructure and economic growth will be key elements of this success formula. As it happens, they are also key elements of the counterinsurgency strategy argued for by General McChrystal as they are essential to both winning hearts and minds and to sending a message that the option we support has more to offer each individual Afghan than do the options offered by the Taliban or by the war lords who favor the kind of perpetual tribalism that has left the country vulnerable and dissolute for centuries. In addition, without creating the conditions conducive to a strong Afghan government, we will have no one capable of Afghanizing ... which is to say, we can't leave without handing the baton to someone else.
Central to our ability to achieve these goals are the people in the U.S. government who are specifically organized to handle post-crisis intervention and reconstruction functions. Unfortunately, despite our regular need for such capabilities, we don't actually have a department or agency that is specifically built and sufficiently supported to achieve these goals. This despite the fact that such interventions have been among the most regular and crucial functions of the U.S. government for decades. Hopefully, Secretary Clinton's QDDR process will produce some recommendations to remedy this.
In the meantime, the next best thing we have is the U.S. Agency for International Development, a worthy but inefficient and often lumbering entity. Nonetheless, it is going to play a critical role in what we do in Afghanistan ... or it can and should play such a role. It also has related and vital roles to play in Pakistan, Iraq and other regions where state failure or state weakening create security as well as humanitarian risks.
These are the things it has. What it doesn't have is a leader. It is now almost November and the new administration has failed to arrive at a candidate for the job everyone can agree on and who can pass the muster of the absurd vetting processes that now dog would-be senior officials and impede this government's ability to function. We came close a while back but the candidate withdrew his name. There is behind the scenes scuffling over this one, partially because there is a sense the agency needs to change and there is a division of opinion as to whether it should be more independent or more closely integrated into the State Department. (The correct answer is "b." The work of A.I.D. is a critical component of American statecraft and the levers of its function need to be controlled by America's chief diplomat.)
Whenever this missing general is brought on board however -- and one can only hope that it is very, very soon -- he or she is going to have to cope with another reality that is not fully understood by most Americans and which is vital to the function of the U.S. government and to our success or failure in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that is how we get to the phantom army I mentioned earlier.
That army represents the majority of people currently on the ground in those two countries on behalf of the U.S. government and is therefore the largest single force on the ground in our Middle Eastern theaters. It is the army of contractors that have become the Hamburger Helper of American military and diplomatic initiatives in our two current wars.
One person who does understand this evolving reality is Middlebury College Professor Allison Stanger, author of One Nation, Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy. The book, now out from the Yale University Press, is a must read for anyone interested in how foreign policy really works in the 21st Century. And it reveals a reality that is radically different from what many expect. Stanger calls Iraq and Afghanistan America's first two "contractor wars" because so much of the work done in each country is being done by cadres of workers reporting not to the U.S. government but to the lowest bidder. She points that the lion's share of AID's budget actually goes to contractors -- that in effect, AID is essentially a contracting agency.
Stanger sees benefits to this approach -- getting the right people for the job, creating efficiencies -- and she sees weaknesses -- Blackwater, anyone? But the vital message of the book is that the system has undergone a massive change but our views of it and the strategies and tactics we apply have not. Nothing makes this point more clearly than the fact that the largest army on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan does not actually report up the chain of command ... or, for that matter, any coherent chain of command. Single capable individuals, like Richard Holbrooke, help mitigate this with energetic management of non-military operations ... but the Holbrookes of this world are few and far between and throwing czars at problems is no way to provide lasting solutions.
To achieve whatever success is possible in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and ultimately the Palestinian Territories and elsewhere is going to require that we address these two problems. First, find that missing general. Then, let's get down to the business of understanding what business we are really in ... and create the strategies and structures we need to make the most of what we've got.
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Like many people in the foreign policy community, I've been spending an inordinate amount of time grappling with the issues associated with Afghanistan. I have been reading newspaper reports, listening to interviews and testimony, weighing the assessments of experts. It is a tiny microcosm of the process that is taking place within the highest levels of the U.S. government right now with a couple differences. First, I don't have access to classified reports (although for the most part my experience has taught me to approach these with great caution.) Second, I don't have to worry about the politics of the decision I reach -- internal or external. And third, and most importantly, my opinion really doesn't matter. I'm up here in the cheap seats -- the blogosphere being the "noisebleed section" of the political arena -- and we all know that a stadium full of people shouting their opinions just sounds like cheering or booing and isn't much more nuanced than that.
Still, as with any discussions concerning whether or not and how to conduct a war, this is a debate that has a strong sense of urgency about it. It also involves a host of really interesting questions about what our real objectives are, about whether this is a counter-insurgency or a counter-terrorism operation, about how victory can be measured, about who our real allies and enemies are, about how much cost we are willing to bear, about what the role for NATO should be, about how to deal with a corrupt, dysfunctional partner in Kabul, even about more fundamental issues such as how do we ultimately keep ourselves safe from terror, whether we can ever be successful at nation-building, and whether there is even truly a nation to build in a country like Afghanistan that is really (much as Iraq is) a confection of the minds of British imperialists that overlooks ancient tribal realities.
To those who say that the Obama administration should not be reconsidering a strategy it announced only last spring, my reaction is that's nonsense. We should constantly be reviewing our strategy based on the changing situation on the ground and the ebb and flow of other external priorities and factors. To those who say that the process has gone on too long, I also say, that's ridiculous given the human stakes involved.
But I am among the group concerned that the final decision may be tainted by factors that should not come into play when forging a strategy. One factor is campaign rhetoric: The president should not be locked into a course of action because of what he said as a candidate. Another factor is momentum: It is hard to reverse any enterprise as massive as this operation in Afghanistan. Another factor is fear of perceptions of an internal rift: I am on the record as feeling that General McChrystal went too far in publicly arguing his case and I feel the President should not be cowed into nudging the needle one jot in the direction of escalation of our involvement because he is unsettled by the political consequences of subordinates who didn't get their way. I also fear the impulse some have to seek an answer that will make everyone happy. In this case, it's just not there.
But the more I grapple with this problem in my own head, the more I feel like we are collectively falling victim to a fatal heuristic trap. After 9/11 nothing was more important that getting the terrorists that committed the act or making America safe from future attacks. This turned Bush as it would have turned any president toward Afghanistan. When he made his weird wrong turn toward Iraq, it led some among his opponents to argue even more vigorously that Afghanistan should have remained our top priority. This had two advantages: It immunized them from critiques they were "soft on terror" or "weak" and it was supported by a certain logic. Barack Obama and most Democrats were among this group.
When Obama came into office therefore, his mandate was to switch from Iraq to Afghanistan and we began to ramp up our involvement there. It became "his" war. It was the "war of necessity." The more involved we got there, the more "important" the debate about our strategy there became. The issue grew to the point that it is common to see reference to Obama's decision on whether or not to increase our troop presence there as the most important foreign policy decision he will make this year.
It might be. But that is different from saying that Afghanistan is actually important itself and different from saying it is really important to the interests of the United States. In fact, the reality is that there are few measures indeed by which it can be honestly argued that Afghanistan warrants the attention it is getting or the resources we are devoting to it.
National Security Advisor Jim Jones was quoted as saying there may be only 100 Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The terror threat has moved elsewhere. Almost every country in Afghanistan's immediate neighborhood can be argued to pose a bigger terrorist threat. It can be argued that we don't want the Taliban to come back into power in Afghanistan. First, of all, that our departure would produce their return is by no means a certainty and it is a view shared by many in Afghanistan. Next, again, they are actively sponsored by elements in Pakistan and their fate is really driven from there.
For sure the biggest security threat in the region is not Afghanistan but Pakistan, a country careening toward the possibility of being divided by civil conflict. The core of the threat is Pakistan's nuclear arsenals and anyone tells you the U.S. knows where the weapons are and is confident in their security is just outright lying to you. Pakistan is the home to terror. Pakistan is the 170 million person nation on the verge of chaos. Pakistan is the nuclear threat. Afghanistan is only relevant relative to Pakistan.
Does that make Afghanistan important? Only if we can use it as a base from which we can contain the threats posed from within Pakistan. But the reality is given the terrain in the mountains on the border, we have spent eight years proving that we can't really do that. And our friends in Kabul are running such a bogus government that it is unlikely they will prove to be a useful aid in such matters anytime in the foreseeable future. Thus, if Afghanistan is only relevant as far as it can help deal with threats in Pakistan and it can't really help very much with those, it is actually not that important.
What's the conclusion? View all our actions in Afghanistan relative to our real interests in the region, which are for the most part in Pakistan. To the extent we can position ourselves in Afghanistan in ways supporting cross-border activities into Pakistan and that gives a rapid deployment capability should the worst happen there, fine. Give them aid. Encourage them to stabilize. But recognize that we shouldn't have an extended military presence in a place that is not actually that important to us -- especially if most experts think our likelihood of success with regard to military objectives in the country is in the slim to none range.
As periodically happens in American life, we are engaged in a furious debate about the wrong issue ... and our failure to recognize this is certain to have negative implications for our ability to deal with what should be our real priorities.
The one blog I read every week is Peter King's "Monday Morning Quarterback" at Sports Illustrated. King aficionados might recognize my weak (if unattributed) shout-outs to him which come in the form of not really worrying so much about the length of any post, covering a variety of subjects, and liberally blending in the pop culture references. They will also recognize that I am not in his league and that the subject about which he writes, football, is significantly more interesting than most of the subjects about which I write.
One of the things he does frequently is offer lists of rapid fire opinions which often come under the rubric of "Ten Things I Think I Think." Consider the following yet another tribute to him ... because that is a much nicer way of thinking of it than concluding I simply stole his title and format.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
I've got some real serious advice for my friends in the Obama administration: act quickly or the "dithering thing" is about to become this president's "vision thing."
For those of you who are too young to remember -- and I know this blog skews toward a younger, hipper crowd than the rest of FP's more staid, respectable, and credible offerings -- the "vision thing" became the brutal short-hand describing George H.W. Bush's supposed lack of vision. It was one of those terms that was so memorable that it slipped into those every day water cooler conversations and became an unshakable part of the conventional wisdom that helped make Bush 41 a one-term president.
We've seen the phenomenon many times before. Sometimes, the phrase is self-inflicted as was "vision thing" or "I am not a crook." Sometimes it is an image: John Kerry windsurfing, Michael Dukakis with silly helmet on. And as Gerald Ford and all these others discovered, the truth is not a defense. You can be, as Ford was, the best athlete ever to be president of the United States, a football All-American, and stumble down a flight of stairs or two and you are a clumsy doofus for the rest of your life.
Sticky phrases tied to potent concepts can undo a president or public figure as much as any action they take. Whether it's a reputation for micro-management or skirt-chasing, once one of these nutshell descriptions sticks, it never goes away.
The alarms started going off in my head regarding this when I saw Tom Ricks's post on the FP site earlier this week which was headlined "The Ditherer in Chief." In it, Ricks laid out with typical economy and insight, why Obama's "dithering" on settling on a strategy in Afghanistan or really moving forward in Iraq is a kind of unsettling counterpoint to George Bush's "panic" in the wake of 9/11. Ricks, who I believe readers should take very seriously on matters such as this, said that as a result of the president's seeming lack of decisiveness on these critical issues, he (Ricks) had become, for the first time, worried about Obama's foreign policy.
Ricks concluded by saying that if he were forced to choose, he'd take dithering over panic. But it was clear, he has become a member of an ever growing group, many of whom are extremely pro-Obama Democrats, that have grown impatient with the president's handling of those aspects of his presidency that have life and death implications for U.S. troops.
I should note, I am not personally of the same view. Provided the administration reaches a decision on its going forward strategy in Afghanistan in the next several weeks as Secretary Gates indicated this weekend that it would, I welcome the systematic assessment and reassessment of our situation, the reaching out for multiple views including those of our allies (as reflected in the comments of NATO Secretary General Rasmussen yesterday), and the recognition that it is worth the delay to come to the best possible solution. We've seen where impulse and dogma-driven reflex will get us. We should welcome the impulse to interject thought into the process as we should the apparent willingness to puncture groupthink by seeking divergent perspectives.
To me the issue is whether the decision is the right one or not. Which, as readers of this blog know, in my view is a much narrower mission in Afghanistan, a focus on getting a tolerable, semi-effective government in place in Kabul, and then moving more toward a counter-terror strategy that involves fewer locally-based forces and more over-the-horizon interventions be they drones or ship-based special forces operations as recently took place in Somalia.
But as mentioned above, the facts won't matter to opponents of the president or to the average voter who has bandwidth for little more than a twitter-length description of the president, a string of bits of conventional wisdom that constitute what passes for the total persona of the commander-in-chief.
Professor Obama and community-organizer-in-chief Obama are both compelling identities to many Democrats (and in many ways welcome ones). But they simply don't cut it on pressing national security issues. The expectations of the public and the defense community which people like Tom Ricks knows so well may be conventional but they are unshakable. Leaders must lead. Decisions must be crisp. The human stakes are in fact undeniably high. Days and weeks do matter...and commanders need to show they "get it." And over all, you need to convey a sense that you have that "vision thing", a sense of where you want to go and that it doesn't take a seminar to reach every decision.
Part of the problem for Obama is that he started out headed in the wrong direction in Afghanistan and he needs to change course. There is no easy way to do it. And it may sting politically. But ultimately, courage carries a lot of weight and is one of the antidotes to the dithering argument. Another potential antidote is offering up different, better stories and images. I am not sure why the Somalia operation did not get more play. It seems to have been a great example of good leadership and the U.S. military effectively doing their very tough job. Identifying the president more closely with the successes of the military will help (assuming they are real and he is truly behind them ... "Mission Accomplished" moments are precisely the kind this president ... and all presidents ... need to avoid.) And of course, the best potential antidote is more decisiveness whenever it is responsible.
It is not too late to keep this label from sticking. But it's getting there.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
This week is a three ring circus for the international community. The U.N. The G20. The Clinton Global Initiative ... and a host of other side shows for good measure. But with most of the activities featuring little more than the foreign policy equivalent of jazz hands ... eye-catching moves amounting to much ado about nothing ... it may ultimately be remembered for a reason no one saw coming. Because I think it is pretty likely that in the future we will look at this week as the beginning of the end of America's presence in Afghanistan and by extension, George W. Bush's 8-year involvement in the Middle East.
It will take some time to wind things down. I also think history may come up with some better name to describe the Bush war in the context of related wars that took place before it, during his father's time in office, and will almost certainly take place after it. Perhaps it will be seen as the Second Gulf War in a series of several. Perhaps it will be seen as the Second Oil War. But we can leave the lasting labels to historians.
The reality is that the reaction to the leak of the McChrystal Report is indicative that there are really only two options in Afghanistan open to the administration. One is that they do not provide McChrystal with the additional resources he requests and they further narrow his mission as a justification for their decision and we begin an inevitable process of winding down. The second is that Obama does grant McChrystal's request but due to the growing doubts about the entire endeavor that the leak of the report has both revealed and exacerbated, that he sets much more specific goals and timelines that in turn pre-sage an ultimate winding down.
The Vietnam analogy is sticking -- the quagmire paradigm -- and no one near the President wants making that mistake again to be his legacy. The fact that Karzai's regime is turning out to be just as corrupt and feckless as our partners in South Vietnam were doesn't help. Further, as we approach the 10 year point at which Russia ended its occupation (which we'll hit in less than two years), comparisons with yet another futile military effort will become too strong for many to bear. Finally, of course, there is the small fact that we're playing whack-a-mole with the insurgents, we can't close the backdoor to Pakistan and if we could, they would go someplace else in the world. In fact, they already are whether to Yemen or Somalia or, apparently, to Colorado.
The seemingly serious threat posed by an Afghan-led terror group associated with al Qaeda that wanted to use explosives to attack U.S. transport hubs underscores two other important points. One is that as we squeeze Afghanistan we may crush some opponents but we do create new ones. Further, it is also clear that we really need to do some new thinking about how one actually does reduce the risk of terror attacks ... and accept that effective homeland security enforcement as apparently has taken place this week, may be the best front line on which we can prosecute this effort.
Meanwhile, of course, in New York and later in Pittsburgh, the headlines that were hoped for from the three-ring circus are unlikely to be materializing ... and the ones that do emerge are likely to be rather disheartening or, at best, underwhelming.
The United States is likely to frustrate the world by providing it with just what it has been asking for. On climate, on the business of the U.N., at the G20 meeting, America will be the key player but it will not dominate or direct or make the tough calls. It will be a better partner than at any time in the recent past. But the result is a three ring circus without a ringmaster. And paradoxically, the United States will be (is being) fiercely criticized for not being strong enough. We can call the world hypocrites all we want but the reality is that everyone wants the same thing: a leader who will take the heat and always lead in the direction they want to go. Any deviation from this ideal will produce howls ... and reading the news this week should produce plenty of corroboration for this observation.
For the Obama administration, the problem is not being an America we can never be. Every girl sooner or later (it always happens around her 29th birthday if the girl's still single), realize that Prince Charming is a myth and must settle for a real man. But when they do, they then want that man to have some demonstrable qualities and being better than the last jerk you dated only gets you so far. For Obama though, the world is looking for proof that he can actually deliver on one or more of his international priorities: make engagement work with Iran, embrace a new approach to Israel and Palestine that actually produces results, refocus to AfPak and make that work, get our leadership on with regard to climate, be a better neighbor in the hemisphere, jettison tired old artifacts of policies (see: Cuba), help foster real reform and new levels of cooperation and transparency in international markets, and reduce the threat of WMD proliferation.
One by one these issues will play in one or another of the three rings that makes this week's foreign policy circus so compelling. The Obama team is hoping there will be signs of progress ... but that seems unlikely. Taken together, the United States may end up being seen as the absent ringmaster not because we have chosen a different style of leadership but simply because we can't deliver. Sometimes this will be because circumstances truly are beyond our control and America doesn't have the influence or options that others ascribe to us. Sometimes it may be because we ourselves promised more than we could deliver. Obama's credibility is at stake ... and given the way most of the issues listed above are trending, regaining it is going to be a challenge that could take a long, long time to address.
As with Afghanistan, here's the secret: resetting expectations. Identify some goals you can actually achieve. Achieve them. That should have been the approach to domestic policy. Go slower. Build up a head of steam. And it needs to be the approach to international policy. Ringmaster or not, in the three ring circus of international affairs, the last place Obama wants to be is with his predecessor and many of his critics in a clown car full of people the world no longer takes seriously.
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
One message that seems to have been sent by the Obama administration thus far: If you challenge us, we will reward you. If you abuse us, we will reward you a lot. But don't think we're going soft. Beware: If you are a friend or a needed ally, we will punish you. (Or is that three messages?)
It is of course, my hope that this is all inadvertent or better yet, part of some grand plan that can't be understood without the proper security clearances. Or maybe it is just "learning curve behavior." But in any case, the facts to date are unsettling.
Russia undercuts our efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear program. Our response: dismantle the missile shield we had contemplated for Eastern Europe.
Hamid Karzai diddles the elections, abuses his people, and is openly corrupt. Our response: let's discuss how many more troops we want to send in to Afghanistan to help strengthen his power base and while we're at it, let's spend billions on doing work building his nation.
Pakistan limits our ability to go after the Taliban and al Qaeda within their borders, limits our ability to gain credit for aid flows to the country while promoting the interests of radical muslim donors and we open the spigots wider.
North Korea pushes forward with weapons programs and rattles its saber regularly and we seek new channels to discuss ways we can deepen our relationship after each calculated taunt.
Myanmar extends the prison term of Aung San Suu Kyi on trumped up charges and we send a high level emissary.
Iran crushes legitimate opposition, the regime steals and election, it lies for decades about its nuclear program, it strengthens its military capability and calls for destruction of Israel and we announce further talks despite their insistence none of the issues most important for us to discuss are open to discussion. Push us harder through arms collaboration with Russia and we remove the threat of that missile defense.
Meanwhile, our one dependable ally in the Middle East, Israel, faces an unprecedented squeeze, our most dependable ally on Venezuela's border, Colombia, can't get even a modest trade deal finalized, the Poles and the Czechs get the rug pulled out from under them, and so on. We need China more than ever to help with Iran after Russia has gone on the record as seeking a divergent outcome ... not to mention needing movement from them on issues like climate and global economic cooperation ... and what do we do? Slap them with unnecessary, hard-to-defend duties on imported tires.
It's the same here at home. No one fears crossing the Obama administration because the two most likely outcomes are either no retaliation or rewards. (Ask Senator Grassley, who gets concessions by the boatload but still refuses to play along, to name just one.)
I'm just sayin'...
Engagement is a worthy goal. The missile shield was probably of dubious value at best (especially when we started to define it in terms of our own sham cover story that it was all about Iran and not about the real longer term threat, Russia). Defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda and seeking greater stability in Pakistan or Afghanistan ... or Israel and neighboring regions. Indeed, I am a pretty enthusiastic supporter of what I understand the outlines and objectives of the Obama administration's foreign policy to be.
But after a while, independent or uncoordinated actions become patterns and patterns send messages. Are we so isolated from Russia today that we have pushed from memory Pavlov and all that smart stuff he and his dog taught us about conditioned response? Even if that's the case, I thought this team was close to Oprah. Couldn't she or her house shrink Dr. Phil point out what happens when abusive behavior is rewarded?
I know it's still early in the administration. And I remain resolutely hopeful. But as a general rule, I take it as a warning sign when Dr. Phil is in any position to offer useful insights regarding U.S. foreign policy. Worse still, we know what happens to people who fail to heed his advice. They end up on the Maury show. That's no place for a U.S. foreign policy ... all toothless and disoriented, throwing chairs and being accused of fathering outcomes we don't want any part of.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
With the statement of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserting that his country would not support sanctions against Iran and his dismissal of U.S. calls for a negotiating timetable with that country, several important questions are raised. They are:
First, how do you like your Iranian nukes? Fried or over-easy?
In other words, without sanctions Iran's program progresses. That leaves two choices: Israel steps up and takes military action to set back the program or second, we simply roll-over and get used to the world's largest state-sponsor of terror producing the nuclear weapons the U.S. intel community now believes they are capable of making.
My sense is that the risk of Israeli military moves just went up dramatically ... and it was pretty high to begin with. But they will only set back the Iranian program briefly if they do intervene and the resulting turmoil on the international scene is likely to produce plenty of blowback for an Israel that is already more isolated than it has been in forty years.
But on the question at hand, let's be absolutely clear: Russia has just essentially unilaterally given the green light to Tehran to join the nuclear weapons club. Russia can block action in the Security Council and no effort to, for example, halt oil and gas flows to Iran could work without Russian cooperation. The last chance of stopping the Iranians over the long-term has probably therefore been undercut. As disturbingly, the Russian message is clearly that this is something they actually support. Otherwise, they could have kept their own counsel while negotiations continued. They didn't have to tip their hand now unless they wanted to scuttle the entire negotiation process. They are saying they believe their approach is the one most likely to work with Tehran. Tehran may even find ways to pretend it is working. But without any effective international levers against the Iranians, they have been given the go-ahead to pursue whatever agenda they choose.
Second, in a related vein, what was Bibi doing in Moscow?
If he was there, as current speculation suggests, to press the Russians to stop shipments of S300 missiles to Iran, that didn't turn out so well, with Russia standing by its right to engage in arms sales with the Iranians...and then adding a threat of severe consequences if Israel or another state used military measures to stop the Iranian nuclear program. At this point, with the Russians providing so much diplomatic, political and military cover for the Iranian efforts, it is almost tempting to start referring to Tehran's initiative as a joint Russian-Iranian nuclear program.
Third, will it be NPT 2.0, NPT 1.1 or N2PT?
Once it is recognized that Iran's entrance into the nuclear club proves (yet again) the impotence of the non-proliferation treaty do we go for an entirely new agreement, a variation on what we have now or just accept that what we have is really the N2PT, which is to say the non-nonproliferation treaty (this is one case where a double negative definitely does not equal a positive.) A completely new deal is, in reality, a non-starter because it would be impossible to get agreement from many nations to opt in. The U.S. view is to renovate the sagging framework of the existing agreement with a much more robust international mechanism for dealing with the creation and disposal of nuclear fuel. But the real question is whether or not there will ever be an enforcement mechanism strong enough to enable multilateral inspections and to ensure multilateral action in the face of proven violations. Actually, Russia has gone quite a long way toward answering that ... which in turn raises another question: Just what is the best way to safely dispose of spent nuclear agreements?
Finally, just how much does Russia have to do before they go from being a contentious partner to actually once again being an enemy?
Ok, this is rhetorical. Given that this week Russia became the world's largest petroleum exporter, we're not going to be outright enemies with them. After all, we've long proven that if you give us a nice meal and pump enough oil into us, we're easy ... or at least flexible. Still, after a rough visit to Moscow by Obama, differences on missile defense, Russia's calls for a new global currency, Russian efforts to place itself at the center of every emerging global alliance to counterbalance the United States, provocative weapons deals with among others Tehran and Caracas, possible missile shipments on board ships that disappear and reappear, aggression in the near-abroad and torpedoing our efforts to stop Iran short of gaining nuclear weapons, you've got to start wondering when we're going to get the message. They'll take whatever we have to give but their agenda diverges from ours on a wide array of critical issues and on some, they conflict with us directly and, one might almost say, exultantly.
Oh, we'll try to put a good face on it. But note: they have given us every incentive to start working hard on our new BIC strategy ... which is to say trying to isolate Russia among the leaders of the emerging world by forging stronger ties with China, India and Brazil (among others). This in turn raises the final question in this litany: which is how much do you think we can get on eBay for one virtually new, unused reset button? Perhaps there is a museum somewhere that would like to put it in a display alongside Neville Chamberlain's umbrella.
We have come to the conclusion of the first six months of the Obama presidency. I know. It seems like a lot longer to me, too. In fact, to me history is starting to look kind of like that Steinberg map of the United States from New York's perspective. Most of the map is New York, then there's a thin strip of New Jersey, then there is a brief stretch of nothingness in which you find Kansas City, Nebraska, Las Vegas and some rocks and mountains and then there is L.A.. Same with history: the Obama Epoch looms large, next comes the fire swamps of the Bush era, then Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky are standing there waving, then a couple of wars, a cowboy movie, Abe Lincoln, and then George Washington.
Nonetheless, despite this skewed perspective, I have been following Obama's foreign policy team pretty closely this past half year and I think it is time for an interim report card. Note: all these evaluations are entirely subjective and can be raised in the future by bribing the teacher with free rides on Air Force One or tuna salad sandwiches in the White House mess. Also: I'm going to offer grades for individual performance and then, in my next post, grades for key initiatives because it is hard to know just who is driving what or deserves credit for which portion of which initiatives.
Barack Obama, Grade: A
Woody Allen said 85 percent of life is just showing up. Well, in this case, for this first six month period, 85 percent of Barack Obama's foreign policy grade is for just showing up. In the first instance, just for showing up in Washington and showing George Bush and his policies that were anathema to so much of the world to the door. In the next several instances from showing up at summits or meetings in London, Prague, Paris, and Cairo (among other places) and sending a message that America is entering a new phase in foreign policy in which engagement, multilateralism and pragmatism will drive U.S. actions. Of course, we all know that the first six months' core policy of "I'm Barack Obama and you're not" won't carry on much longer. There are problems that need to be solved and some of them are complicated by the small fact that they are actually insoluble. But for now, give the guy credit. He has actually installed himself at the center of the foreign policy apparatus, put foreign policy atop his list of priorities and has been an engaged, informed chief executive and commander in chief. In fact, if anything, he has made himself too important to U.S. foreign policy and he needs to delegate more. But that'll come...because he'll have no choice.
Joe Biden, Grade: B
The fact that he is even on this list is to his credit. Most VPs disappear without a trace on the foreign policy front. And after the Cheney example, there was every reason to think the next VP would be permanently sealed into that undisclosed location. But Obama has turned to Biden for his experience, has made him a partner in policymaking and has made him a spokesperson for the administration on key issues. Does he sometimes stick his foot in it? You betcha. But so far no real damage has been done and Obama has often turned to Biden (supported by a good team of advisors like Ron Klain and Tony Blinken) for guidance that has, reportedly, been taken very seriously.
Rahm Emanuel, Grade: A-
Emanuel is the most powerful White House chief of staff since Sherman Adams (in the Eisenhower administration). That's saying something since White House chief of staff is one of the most powerful jobs in the world...and one of the most consistently under-estimated. Rahm is in the room at key meetings and is a critical force to be reckoned with. He has played a crucial role in making key political appointments, he has shaped policy discussions, he has worked the Hill. In fact, if I were a foreign leader and I couldn't get to Obama himself, I'd probably go to Rahm before Hillary or Jim Jones. But that's just me. 'Cause I have a soft-spot for "self-hating Jews." Why is it an A minus? Well, you just can't get an A in foreign policy when you piss so many people off. And further, it doesn't serve the president well to have so much foreign policy power concentrated in the immediate office of the president (David Axelrod, Greg Craig, Valerie Jarrett, and others have weighed in on big issues here often causing some to thing the hub of U.S. foreign policy at the moment is not the NSC but wherever the president and his staff are.)
Jim Jones, Grade: B
Tell them all to go to hell, Jim. The reality is that despite all the negative buzz ... mostly from people inside the administration that wanted or still want your job ... the Obama NSC was set up quickly, is running smoothly, is staffing the president well and hasn't recommended that he invade Iraq. (Admittedly you did recommend pushing forward in AfPak and that will likely prove a very serious mistake...but we'll get to that later.) While one of your colleagues said "he just isn't suited for a job demanding 12 hour days and attention to detail", you are there when the president needs you and you add important value on the military front. You're still spinning up to speed on foreign policy per se and you may have let delegating go too far (give a guy in Washington too much rope and he's likely to use it to try to hang you) but I say, you're off to a good start.
Tom Donilon, Grade: A
You're Jones's number two and he has fully empowered you to be the chief operating officer of the NSC. Thus far, the reports from all quarters are that the inter-agency process is working well, that you're a big time problem solver and that your quiet professionalism is paying off. Not bad for a guy whose previous foreign policy high water mark was being the force behind the glory that was Warren Christopher. And for all those folks eager to push Jones in front of a train, careful. No matter what the conventional wisdom is now, look at history. Number twos at the NSC often get to be number one.
Denis McDonough and Mark Lippert, Grade: B+
You guys are Obama's boys, his body men, and seen as real power players as a result despite your respective traditionally second tier roles as mouthpiece for the NSC and NSC chief of staff. You have the president's trust and that is better than any title in Washington. That said, careful gentlemen. In-fighting in Washington is a long, often subtle game and he who is up today is almost certainly he who has a target on his back tomorrow. Denis, you've got big time reporters steaming at your "arrogance" (their word, not mine...please, don't hurt me...) and you've made a few missteps...like getting out in front of State's negotiations to restore an Ambassador to Syria...that have generated some ill-will elsewhere in the administration. Even among people who slap you on the back daily.
Hillary Clinton, Grade: A-
Your first job was to scotch that buzz that you would be stealing the president's limelight, working against him. But you've got experience with letting a guy stand in the spotlight while you do a lot of the heavy lifting...and the senate choice to be a "workhorse and not a showhorse" served you well, too. Frankly, they should have used you more, earlier. No one in the administration other than the president is a more effective spokesperson, has more impact overseas, or works harder to get it right. No one other than the president is even close. Your role will almost certainly grow. Only missteps to note: you skipped off the talking points on North Korea and then the Gulf defense umbrella in the past couple weeks ... but frankly, in both cases, you advanced the administration's interests. And some members of your team at State are viewed as Team Hillary and not as foreign policy pros, common in early days, but they need to work to reach out to the foreign service and prove themselves.
Robert Gates, Grade: A
Gates is perhaps the best example of the American national security technocrat the country has produced in the past half century. His smooth, service-to-his-country oriented, transition from serving as George Bush's SecDef to Barack Obama's was masterful and has helped keep Iraq and AfPak from dominating the news even more than they have. He has spoken truth in terms of cutting back on defense waste and he has done what he has done for every president, provided trusted, measured advice. But those who know him are looking forward to the memoirs. He is a measured man but he has strong opinions that can be expressed rather colorfully. Look out Don Rumsfeld.
Special Envoys, Grade: A
I don't much like the proliferation of special envoys throughout the U.S. government. But the guys on point for big foreign policy initiatives have dived in and made a difference early, notably Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell. (Dennis Ross's role changed too soon to judge, but reports are he is adding very real value at the NSC now.)
Holbrooke still uses the first person singular too often but there is literally no one smarter or more capable on the entire Dem foreign policy bench. When people say Obama has a team of envoys all of whom could be Secretaries of State, they mean Holbrooke (Mitchell could, too, of course, but Holbrooke is at another level of knowledge, experience and energy). Mitchell has done well to build trust on the Israeli-Palestinian issues and the result has been that there is hope for progress on Syria and ultimately for movement toward a two-state solution. He is playing a big role making that possible.
Okay ... so you probably think, soft-headed former Clintonite is giving these guys a free ride. Not so fast. I think the team is very solid and doing pretty darn well all things considered. But as for their policies? Er...um...I'm a bit more concerned there. But you are going to have to wait for those grades until Monday.
Matthew Cavanaugh-Pool/Getty Images
Today Hillary Clinton made a statement in Thailand that the United States would work to create a defensive shield to help protect Gulf allies from a potential Iranian nuclear threat. Her point is that Iran should not think creating nukes will give them a strategic advantage because we will work relentlessly to blunt any edge nukes might provide.
Seems reasonable enough. Not surprisingly though, Clinton's comments landed in Jerusalem like a dud scud. According to Agence France Presse, Israel's Intelligence Services Minister Dan Meridor responded:
I heard without enthusiasm the American declarations according to which the United States will defend their allies in the event that Iran uses nuclear weapons, as if they were already resigned to such a possibility. This is a mistake. We cannot act now by assuming that Iran will be able to arm itself with a nuclear weapon, but to prevent such a possibility."
I also agree with this view. That's what I like about the Middle East. It's rife with complexities and no issue has fewer than three sides. What I don't like much about the Middle East is when it becomes, as it often does, that magical fantasy land where passions can be applied to fantasies to produce facts ... or where the insupportable is often the unshakable foundation of absolute certitude. (Which explains a number of religious developments in the region ... but I will gingerly sidestep that discussion for now.)
My recent post on shifting attitudes in Israel and the United States regarding the relationship between the two countries produced among those commenting on it a host of really interesting comments from all over the spectrum ... and some of the nasty/loony stuff we could all do without.
Of course, item number one in this latter category is racism or prejudice of any sort against any group. Examples of this were visible in a number of the comments, sometimes boldly, sometimes insidiously. The big winner in the makes-ya-wanna-barf contest came from a guy named "briand" who, in reference to a rather overheated pro-Israeli post by AllanGreen, wrote, "If this is parody, kudos! I think the thing I'll miss the most about you Jews is your sense of humor. Not so much the apartheid/lebensraum mentality though." Scroll on through the comments ... there's lots of hatred there, in and among some fairly thoughtful arguments for one side or another.
Another commenting technique that drives me up a wall is imputing views to me (for whatever reason) that I don't actually hold. For example: I'm no fan of the settlements, think they ought to be dismantled, am not a Zionist, don't support the views of the Likud, and based on his track record to date am no Bibi fan. I also don't think that taking a tough stand against the Iranian nuclear program implies the need to attack and lay waste to Iran. Rather, we need an international program of inspections and enforcement that explicitly asserts the right to use force to compel compliance and offers a multilateral guarantee of providing that force. (Not just in the case of Iran, by the way, but in the case of all future signatories of the new NPT we will start negotiating next year ... an NPT that should offer the framework within which the deal with Iran ought to be included.)
Another aggravating approach which often undercuts otherwise reasonable arguments is making insupportable assertions. For example, one reader argued that Israel had Iran and Ahmadinejad all wrong, that the Iranian president's comments about destroying Israel were really a deliberate, unfair misquoting of him and that by extension; Israel had nothing to fear from Tehran. Really? Aren't we forgetting 30 years of official pronouncements or the guy who chants "death to Israel" at afternoon prayers? I think it was the same reader who argued another reason to chill out about any potential Iranian threat was that Iran has not attacked anyone in 250 years. This overlooked, as another reader pointed out, the fact that the country has for decades been the world's leading state sponsor of terror...which ought to count for something.
In this vein, one of the most popular insupportable assertions is that somehow solving the settlements problem or even the larger Israel-Palestinian problem will in turn solve or contribute greatly to solutions for all our other problems in the Middle East -- this despite the fact that many of the biggest problems in the region antedate the founding of Israel by a number of centuries.
In the interest of dispelling this misconception, here, off the top of my head, are 15 major problems in the Middle East that would not be solved by solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute:
This doesn't include related issues like the tensions between extremist or tribal Islamic groups with roots in the region and Russia, China, and other bordering countries. Perhaps you have others, feel free to add. (Just try to restrain yourself if you feel the impulse to make a comment that uses as its primary source The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.)
Dismantle the settlements. Create two states. Create an internationally monitored buffer between those states. Let billions in aid flow in to help relieve the plight of the Palestinians. Please, do all these things. They are all long overdue. But know this: They may remove an irritant, they may remove an argument from extremists, they may put U.S. relations on a more even footing with other countries in the region. But they won't make the Middle East appreciably less dangerous or difficult and I guarantee you, they won't stop efforts by the countries of the region to continue to scapegoat, confront and battle Israel on countless other pretexts.
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There are some really big myths currently distorting the world's view of itself...that we can clear up right now. Here are a few of the biggest:
It's important. It even has broad repercussions. But neither of these things mean that solving it will actually make the Middle East broadly more stable than it is today. First, there is no such thing as an Israeli-Palestinian issue. The Palestinians are divided and the wing with the greatest allergies to peace, Hamas, is actually Iranian/Hezbollah sponsored. Their involvement does not however, mean that arriving at the two state solution that is the only answer for Israel and the Palestinians will instantly reduce tensions between Iran and Israel...especially given Iran's views objections to Israel on grounds that have nothing to do with the Palestinians. Further, will solving the Arab-Israeli issue reduce tensions between Shiites and Sunnis, Turks and Kurds, Iranians and Saudis, extremists and moderates throughout the Arab world, the Taliban and the Afghan government, the Taliban and the Pakistani government, al Qaeda and the west, etc.? Will it bring a halt to the Iranian nuclear program or stabilize oil supplies? No.
Really? In the past week I have had conversations with senior Obama administration economic officials and prominent former Democratic cabinet and sub-cabinet members and the theme from all of them was the same. The reports of Wall Street's demise as a center of obscenely high-paid, risk taking, politically influential, high-rollers are vastly overstated. To be sure we are in a downturn of historic portions and many big institutions have disappeared or been wounded. Further, new regulations like those associated with derivatives will be put in place. But some promised changes -- like making it impossible for banks to grow "too big to fail" and containing executive compensation in meaningful ways -- just can't be done. Global corporations need global institutions of great scale to service them. Put limits on executive compensation in certain classes of companies and the best executives will move to others where they can make the dough. The firms within the TARP will skedaddle out as fast as they can and the firms left standing will have a great competitive position in global markets. There may be enduring caution on some level, but if you think that this recession is enough to crush the superclass on Wall Street (or their enduring hold on Washington policy makers) then you haven't read enough about how cockroaches and other similar creatures can survive nuclear war.
The bias of the Reagan-Thatcher era to always push for smaller government and to leave as many decisions as possible to the markets may have been brushed away. The needle has moved toward more government-market balance. But the reality is that the rise of China as a market economy and the expansion of basic market principals to essentially every country of the world prompting the rise of a new class of economic heavyweights is a far bigger, more important story than this downturn. The world is becoming more capitalist not less, more integrated and thus more dependent on a similar set of rules. As in the preceding case, the efforts of most leaders in the public and private sectors are focused on restoring conditions much like those that preceded the crisis and massive, fundamental changes are being resisted and repelled. Sooner or later more significant global regulation and institutions for that regulation will be needed. But my sense is that this crisis has not thus far been enough to motivate such fundamental changes (which require ceding sovereignty which is always anathema to national governments.)
No. It has gone from being overstated to, in the minds of some commentators and policy-labelers to being over. But it is not going away. Threats remain and are actually growing that sometime in the not too distant future a terrorist group will unleash weapons of mass destruction somewhere in the world. The war in Pakistan and Afghanistan is a war against terrorists on the one hand and a war to ensure the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenals against terrorists on the other. Indeed, it's the fact that it is not a conventional conflict between nations that makes it so hard to fight as to act against our adversaries we must take steps that appear to be actions against our allies (violating sovereignty, attacking their soil, etc.) The Bush War on Terror, mismanaged, bloated, confused by other agendas, was a failure. It is too early to say whether the Obama version of the war, whatever it is called, is more successful or not.
Barack Obama is a pragmatist. He and those around him are from the enduring centrist traditions of U.S. foreign policy. Whether it is positions on detainees or terror files, how he handles trade issues or how he balances interests among our allies, he may be very different from his predecessor in his rhetoric, in his background and especially in his competence, but he will increasingly seem to the world very much like what they have come to expect from American presidents over the years (as disappointing as that may be to some and as reassuring as that may be to others). Where he advocates big changes it will be because he is reflecting a majority opinion in the United States (get out of Iraq, wind down the embargo on Cuba) or for reasons that are easily misinterpreted (he will be much more multilateral in his impulses but in large part this is due to a need for enhanced burden sharing rather than any view that widely varies from the traditional U.S. views on ceding our prerogatives to others.) Right now, he has that quality many popular leaders do which is that people see in him what they want. Bush was country and western. He is world music. But that's not the case, he is simply the latest iteration of a rapidly changing U.S. establishment.
First, of all, huge imbalances in wealth, deprivation that claims the lives of 40,000 children under five a day from causes that could be prevented, global warming, and other chronic problems are much bigger in human terms and in terms of geopolitical consequences. The recession is a big issue because it is impacting the rich as well as the poor and hence getting the attention. Further, the recession may be bottoming out but it may not be, secondary dips due to further crises (commercial real estate, emerging markets debt crunches, etc.) are possible. But for many economists, the problem may not be the recession as much as it is the recovery. If the recovery is very slow, if the United States struggles to get past 2 percent growth, and this endures for years (viz. Japan) it could put major new stresses on the global economy and on leaders fumbling for answers as to what to do to jump start the U.S. which remains for many, the world's market of first choice and last resort.
I would have added "there is a way for the United States to win in Pakistan" since I think our best outcome there is likely to be avoiding a catastrophe. But you may have others. Please add them to the list.
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I don't know about you, but I find it a little peculiar that after an election campaign during which it was regularly argued that Pakistan was one of the most dangerous places in the world -- and after the new administration's very appropriate decision to devote significant new resources to the challenges we face in that country...and after top officials working the issue since almost day one...and despite the fact that throughout this period the country was primarily described as the unstable haven of our terrorist enemies -- it now turns out, rather surprisingly, that there seems to be an organized civil war going on there in which those same enemies were making substantial progress marching on the capital. They are functioning more as a coordinated guerrilla force and the prospect of them picking off multiple provinces of the country (much as the FARC did in Colombia creating pockets of failed or radicalized provinces in the wrapper of a weak state...what you might call a hybrid state) is looming as a real one.
Even given the fact that Pakistan was the site of one of our greatest intelligence failures of modern history (failing to catch their development of nuclear weapons...a failure that may, in future, look even worse than it does today) it is still surprising to think that we have been viewing this situation so incorrectly for so long. Yet, as evidenced by Admiral Mullen's reactions following his recent trips, the situation has deteriorated dramatically and we seem to have been caught flat-footed. Sure, the Zardari government has now started to make a show of going after the Taliban. And yes, their ambassador Husain Haqqani, an old friend and a good, smart guy with a tough job, had a piece in the Wall Street Journal saying "everything's fine, please send helicopters" yesterday as an attempt to soothe fraying American nerves. But behind the scenes, policy types and military leaders are concerned this country, which is ground zero in many of the worst-case scenario exercises gamed out by national security officials, may be on the verge of spiraling out of control.
That would be a very, very bad thing. What with the nukes and all. Made worse by the fact that the options available to us are slim. The Pakistanis don't want us on the ground. (So instead they get Predator attacks which they don't much like either. And, utterly appropriately, Holbrooke attacks which, as Slobodan Milosevic would tell you...if he weren't deservingly dead...can be worse.) We can't work too closely with our best potential ally in the region, India, because it would only inflame the Pakistanis. And the situation in Afghanistan is also not so great.
One specter that is raised in my mind is that Pakistan becomes a bit like Cambodia. Everyone has accepted our troops should be on the ground in a neighboring country but the war has shifted across a border and we are now faced with the dilemma of whether or how we should cross that border. The Cambodia thing, by the way, did not turn out so well. (The main difference of course, is that back then the primary war was in Vietnam. Today, it is in Pakistan.)
So what are we left with? Comforted by? Well, by Plan B of course. And to understand that, you have to meet General Plan B: Pakistan's top soldier, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Kayani, who replaced former President Musharraf as head of the army, is the first Pakistani chief of staff who also headed up their notoriously unreliable (which is to say divided in terms of loyalties) intelligence services, the ISI. He's the default option for DC policy hounds, the guy who steps in when the bell finally tolls for Zardari as it inevitably will. He is the man whose leadership stands between us and 60 or more Pakistani nukes going unsecured, between us and a radicalized Pakistan.
And the American people will gladly go along with it. It won't be much comfort to Musharraf...in fact, he may find the irony rather galling, but if we could be sure that a strong military government could keep a lid on Pakistan for the foreseeable future we would jump at it. Jump back at it. Take it again. Democracy schemocracy. Let's have stability and worry about the details later. Heck, we're taking a stand against torture that ought to buy us at least this pragmatic diversion from our alleged national ideals, right? At least that is pretty much the conventional wisdom in Washington. (Which, oddly enough, in this case actually makes pretty good sense.)
In fact, looking at the region and the instability in Afghanistan and Iraq, it does not seem farfetched at all to imagine a successful Obama presidency ending with strongmen or juntas in charge of each of these countries. Because the alternatives are messy and unstable at best, requiring more military resources than we can muster or military options we'd rather not consider at worst.
Ironically, the one country in the region we have not invaded, Iran, may be the one with history and the public discourse most likely to actually produce something like sustainable democracy. (Which as one noted expert in the region suggested to me...somewhat optimistically...could spill over into the political approaches of Hezbollah and Hamas.) It's not on the imminent horizon to be sure, but it is fair to say that Iran has always been a better candidate for stable, functioning democracy than the other three places.
So, could that be the Obama legacy? Three juntas and a democracy? In these four places? It wouldn't be according to the game plan and we'd have to hold our noses from time to time, but it's worth considering just how welcome such an outcome would be if it produced greater stability and the time we needed to reduce our dependence on the region's oil and contain the region's nuclear and terrorist threats. Come on, admit it, you'd take that deal in a heartbeat.
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Bob Gates is Tyler Hansbrough...only shorter and better at what he does than the basketball all-American. Our secretary of defense could have left his job last year and although he wouldn't have ended up in the NBA making millions as Hansbrough would've done, surely his life would have been much easier than it is today dealing with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and managing our massive defense apparatus in a Democratic administration. Like Hansbrough, however, Gates saw a higher purpose. And while the papers today are full of paens to the North Carolina power forward for coming back for one more season all in the name of team in the wake of the Tar Heels' NCAA basketball championship last night (predicted here first...and by first, I mean before it was predicted by Barack Obama), Gates actually has the much higher, higher purpose. Furthermore, like Hansbrough, Gates proved his own value and his toughness yesterday...although the former Aggie did it by unveiling substantial military budget reprioritizations that will certainly have him facing a vastly tougher, more seasoned defense than Michigan State could manage last night. In fact, the defense Gates will have to overcome is the world's number one defense, the U.S. military-industrial complex.
Here in D.C. you can already hear the chants starting off in the distance, off in the direction of the Beltway, the habitat in which Beltway bandits live and breed, feeding off of giant defense subsidies and the rotting carcasses of public servants who have tried to stop them in the past. Hear it? Lockheed, Lockheed, F-2-2, If You Won't Fund It, Let's See What Congress Will Do!
Gates's announcement of major cuts to marquee defense projects like the F-22, the insanely expensive presidential helicopter effort, the Army's classic let's-throw-our-checkbook-at-the enemy Future Combat Systems and some of the more bloated, even-less-successful than the norm missile defense programs (and that's saying something), needs to be embraced for two reasons. One is that we can easily do without the programs and that as Gates noted:
The perennial procurement and contracting cycle, going back many decades, of adding layer and layer of cost and complexity onto fewer and fewer platforms that take longer and longer to build, must come to an end. There is broad agreement on the need for acquisition and contracting reform in the Department of Defense. There have been enough studies, enough hand-wringing, enough rhetoric. Now is the time for action."
The other reason we need to get with the spirit of what Gates is proposing is that while the U.S. Congress and the defense contractors who make them dance complain that Gates is putting their programs at risk (House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton has already said "the buck stops with Congress"...which is actually perhaps the wrongest statement uttered by a Member of Congress since either "I don't know how that money got in my freezer" or "I didn't know he was a page."), a new reality will be creeping into view. The problem, in fact, with the Gates cuts is not that they are too sweeping, it is that they are far, far too small. As I will argue at greater length in an article appearing in the May/June issue of The National Interest, the United States can no longer afford the "permanent war economy" that was first described by "Engine" Charlie Wilson in 1944. We can no longer afford to spend as much as every other country in the world added up. Given current deficits, current and future debt levels, and the looming aspiration crushing deficits associated with retirement health care, we will soon look back on the Gates proposals to swap spending here for spending there as the idle chatter of luxurious by-gone days. The cuts will have to be in the hundred billion dollar or more range and we will have to dispose of and move beyond not just old think, but traditional ways of even organizing, deploying and determining missions and strategies for our armed forces. We will have to come to recognize...and this won't be easy...that we actually make ourselves weaker with overspending, that we undercut our strength by creating high tech military programs while we let rust rot away the guts of the U.S. economy. More on this in a couple weeks, when the magazine hits the stands. For the meantime, let's give Gates and Obama credit for starting to stand up to the unbridled lunacy of the U.S. defense spending culture.
Speaking of executive branch sacrifice, one more point: What's up with the attacks on Larry Summers for making a good living the last couple years? The guy was Treasury secretary and president of Harvard for goodness sake. Where did you expect him to work, White Castle? As those who know him and love him will tell you, he probably doesn't have the interpersonal skills for that type of work. Rather, what he does have is very special knowledge, the company he worked for feels he offered (apparently very considerable) value for money, and doing the work gave him better understanding of the markets he is currently supposed to be helping to fix. What's most important, he could still be making the big bucks right now. But he has chosen to take what amounts to a 98 percent pay cut to re-enter public service, to work insane hours and to get beaten up in the press every day. Isn't that something we should be praising? Go after his policies if you want -- I have done so myself from time to time, but this is a highly ethical, principled, dedicated public servant who is actually helping the country address an unprecedented crisis. So, those of you playing up this non-story, in the words of another great public servant, Doctor Evil, "zip it."
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.