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Entries in Obama Administration (114)


The national security strategy that isn't

Cartoonist here

Reading the new National Security Strategy, one is struck by how little it actually talks about national security and instead speaks mostly about America's economic renewal (security assets listed include a strong economy, fiscal discipline and access to affordable healthcare).  

All the right things are said about enlisting the aid of rising great powers, and everybody, including the FT, admires the calmer tone, but this document doesn't really clarify the war aims in Afghanistan--for example. 

The NSS is often a list-drill, but this one is especially incoherent:

It also warns against imposing US values, yet says that building "government capacity" is essential.  Or take domestic counter-terrorism.  Rightly, the White House wants the issue kept in proportion--yet the strategy promises ever more resources for aviation security and intelligence gathering as though cost, disruption, and infringement of civil liberties were no object.

To me, the document sort of begs off on the question of US leadership, which is certainly a route for encouraging others to do more.  But it signals an America that's adjusting, adjusting, adjusting--without much ambition for leading.  

Again, maybe this is all we can expect with this administration, but it strikes me as largely a waiting strategy.


The flag follows trade

Gist:  America under Obama seeks to enlist the aid of rising great powers in shaping the international order for the better.  Problem is, most of these powers are just feeling their oats, and their fist instinct ain’t to take orders from Washington.

Hence, say I, all this “world without the West” bravado, which is thrilling for those pushing it, but it will wear off once larger realities set it.

Hillary Clinton quote:  “Convincing people to go alone with us requires different skills and ways to exercise our power than it did 50 or 100 years ago.”

True enough for 50 years ago, but 100 years ago WE were the rising power that required difference skills from established ones seeking to enlist our help, so some finer sense of the historical sequencing here, please.

Series of cool charts in the piece lay out a logic I first spelled out in PNM:  politics follows trade nowadays, unlike during the Cold War when trade (and investment) followed the flag.  That too is part of the Cold War peace dividend staring us in the face.  The charts show how, for Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, and Turkey, China now trades with each to the same degree—or better—than the US did in the past or trade.

This is an inescapable reality:  first comes the trade, then the investment, then the infrastructural network ties, then the political friendship, and then the confluence of security interests.

Expecting anybody to choose us over China with those dynamics unfolding inexorably over time is to ignore reality.

So no, we won’t be fighting China, and neither will any other rising power—save maybe India, but even that seems far fetched.

And yeah, that too is part of the Cold War peace dividend, although it’s really part of America’s larger international liberal trade order-cum-globalization peace dividend, and it should most definitely be viewed that way.  No hegemonic power before us was ever able to structure a system in which numerous great powers could rise simultaneously and peacefully.

But again, America “doesn’t do grand strategy” because we’re all dreamy pinheads, according to the East Coast liberal establishment’s conventional wisdom.


System perturbed? You bet. Rule-set reset? Did not take.

WAPO piece saying no comprehensive global rules likely to emerge from recent financial crisis primarily because the EU and the US cannot agree on any one approach.  We agree on desired ends; we cannot yet agree on chosen means.

This was always the downside of the collective stimulus packages working so well in the short run: the crisis does not end up being enough to foster systemic change.

The go-your-own-way approach undoubtedly leave us with a patchwork of rules, whose gaps will inevitably be exploited--once again--by innovators both well-meaning and nefarious:

. . . a resulting patchwork of reforms could allow companies to continue exploiting national differences by moving operations to countries where conditions are most favorable and thwart the efforts of regulators to spot financial threats early on. The outcome, for instance, could be very different ways of banking in New York and the financial capitals of Europe, prompting leading American firms to shift their riskiest activities overseas beyond the purview of U.S. regulators.

The evolving divide, analysts say, is spooking investors and contributing -- along the European debt and euro crisis -- to the sharp losses in recent days on stock markets from New York to Frankfurt to Tokyo.

Plenty of points of agreement (e.g., next time, the financial community itself must pay), the article notes, but wider perceptions of profound philosophical differences creates uncertainty in the system.


There is no Plan B for Afghanistan

Karen DeYoung piece in WAPO underscores the bum's rush mentality at work in the Obama administration:

The Obama administration's campaign to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan's second-largest city is a go-for-broke move that even its authors are unsure will succeed.

The bet is that the Kandahar operation, backed by thousands of U.S. troops and billions of dollars, will break the mystique and morale of the insurgents, turn the tide of the war and validate the administration's Afghanistan strategy.

There is no Plan B.

The deadline for results is short: Administration officials anticipate that the operation will form the centerpiece of a major strategy assessment due in December and will justify the first withdrawals of U.S. troops from elsewhere in Afghanistan in July 2011. Although operations initiated last winter in southwestern Helmand province will continue, and new troop deployments are scheduled this year for northern and eastern Afghanistan, little else will matter if the news from Kandahar is not good.

The urgency and the difficulty of the task were illustrated Saturday when the Taliban launched an unprecedented rocket and ground attack against the Kandahar air field, NATO's largest installation in southern Afghanistan and the headquarters of the upcoming offensive. Several coalition troops and civilian employees were wounded when rockets sailed over perimeter fortifications, but gunmen who tried to fire their way inside through a gate were unsuccessful, the U.S. military said.

Officials have described the offensive's blend of civilian and military operations as the first true test of the counterinsurgency doctrine adopted five years ago on the eve of the 2007 surge in Iraq, but since only imperfectly applied. As troops battle insurgent forces entrenched among the population on the outskirts of the city, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, U.S.-mentored Afghan police will establish a presence in the relatively secure center.

Scary to think this rush job is being described as the "first true test of the counterinsurgency doctrine."  Last time I checked, the doctrine didn't say, "Do a half-assed job for the first seven years and then cram a serious effort into a window of several months, making a do-or-die show of force in a single city."

We all hope it works, but this is not a seriously patient test of anything other than Obama's intense desire to quit the place amidst a good showing.  

There has been no significant regionalization of the solution set.  Instead, we get this showpiece showdown.

Tell me that doesn't strike you like magical thinking?  "If we can make it work in Kandahar, then the Afghans themselves will make it work throughout the rest of the country!"

I have a bad feeling. 

Even more so when I hear Obama saying his new national security strategy will create a new "international order" based on diplomacy and engagement.  An unimpressive showing in Afghanistan will render that vision DOA--no matter what pretty words are attached.


Judah Grunstein on my Obama column

Judah is my editor at World Politics Review.  He challenged me last week to move into some new territory and what resulted was the Obama piece.  Here's his commentary on that.


The Politics Blog: 5 Ways to Get Help on the North Korean Mess (from China)

Is Kim Jong-Il mad or what? As if this weekend's Eastern diplomatic swing to ease tensions over the sinking of a South Korean warship didn't seem fruitless or frustrating enough, now the world's least-favorite despot is really screaming to respect his authorit-ah by freezing ties with Seoul this morning.

Having long ago reversed its own "sunshine policy" toward its evil twin, South Korea now seems truly fed up. President Lee Myung-bak checked all the usual boxes over the weekend (cut remaining trade, block sea lanes, resume pysops, seek UN Security Council resolution, etc.), then pointedly added a call for regime change, vowing that North Korea "will pay a price." But before you go screaming World War III on today's developments, take heart: The solution, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remains in "intensive consultations" with Beijing over both NorKo and Iran's nuclear program, remains in China. And the time for tough choices seems to have arrived, both for Beijing and the Obama administration.

I have long argued — and since persisted, with regard to both Pyongyang and Tehran — that the U.S. should punt on Iran's nukes (there's nothing undeterrable about a Shia bomb) and target North Korea for regime change. I still believe that. Engaging with Iran serves tangible, near-term purpose (e.g., Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel-vs.-Hamas/Hezbollah), while toying with Kim serves none. And I still believe that China is in the driver's seat, whether we're talking Beijing's $80-billion investment in Iran's energy sector or its dreams of lifting $6-trillion worth of NorKo's mineral reserves (at bargain basement prices). Understanding that China must save face as well as sunk costs, here's my plan for making everyone — save Israel and Kim — more, shall we say, respectf-ah in the short run.

Read the full post at Esquire's The Politics Blog


WPR's The New Rules: For U.S. and World, Obama Spells Relief, not Cure

As somebody who voted for President Barack Obama, I am surprised to find myself believing that he is slated to be -- and more so, should be -- a one-term president, a possibility that Obama himself has already broached publicly. It's not any one thing he has or hasn't done that has led me to this admittedly premature conclusion. Rather, it's a growing realization that everything Obama brings to the table in terms of both deeds and vision suggests that history will judge him to be a transitional figure. He is a much-needed leveling-off from Bush-Cheney's nosebleed-inducing foreign policy trajectory, no doubt. But he is not "the One," in whom so much hope was invested for the revitalization of this clearly disoriented superpower.

Read more at World Politics Review


Trying to drive a wedge between Gates and Obama

Arthur Herman column in NYPost via James Riley.

Per my "Awakening of Robert Gates" piece in Esquire earlier this year, you start to see the right going after Gates obliquely while trying to keep the bulk of the blame on Obama (Obama is purposefully condemning America to losing its superpower status and Gates is letting him do it).

Everyone and his brother has long predicted the end of the post-9/11 defense "gusher" that saw plenty of spending for both the Leviathan and SysAdmin sides of the house, meaning we kept buying the Big War platforms and used the small wars force like crazy in Iraq and Afghanistan.  So long as Bush-Cheney set no spending limits, all was fine.

Then the financial crisis hits, Obama does his stimulus/bail-out spending there, and we're back, to no one's surprise, talking most about debts and deficits and reining in spending.

So Gates goes around telling the military, like in the recent "Ike" Kansas speech, that the same old approach to force structure (same big platforms, just more pimped out and supremely costlier) cannot continue, and too many in the audience sit there, mouths agape, wondering what hit them.

What this signals?  The Committee on the Present Danger is reforming and will seek to paint Obama as the second coming of Jimmy Carter.  I don't think this is a bad thing, per se, and I truly believe Obama needs to offer a strong defense against the charge. But what comes next, in terms of a progressive revitalization of the military post-Iraq, cannot be some mindless return to the Leviathan force structure of the past.

So we need more than brain-dead whining like this.


Obama: Frustrating the grand strategist in me

Warren Christopher LAT op-ed by way of WPR's Media Roundup.

Christopher makes his usual bland appeal for small steps leading to a legacy of modest, move-the-pile accomplishments.


During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised he would end our diplomatic isolation and pursue "engagement" in foreign affairs. His opponent tried to turn his proposal against him by saying it would be reckless and naive. Obama regarded his election as a mandate for engagement, and no campaign promise has been more faithfully carried out by his administration . . .

Beyond Mitchell's efforts, Obama has been using engagement in pursuit of his foreign policy goals. One of the president's chief goals, as he said on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, is "to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and to seek a world without them." His personal intervention in talks with President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia was instrumental in finalizing a replacement agreement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expired in December. The signing in Prague last month was a tribute to their mutual engagement, producing major reductions in both nation's nuclear arsenals as well as advancing U.S.-Russian ties in general.

The priority that Obama is giving to engagement has also been apparent in recent exchanges with China. The president, unhappy when the Chinese sent lower-level diplomats to meet with him at the climate change summit in Copenhagen, announced an arms sale package for Taiwan. The Chinese objected stridently.

To prevent the exchanges from spinning out of control, the president sent Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg to Beijing to reassure the Chinese ... The Chinese responded by announcing that President Hu Jintao would come to Washington for a nuclear summit ...

Improvement in human rights has been the policy goal of recent engagement with the repressive nation of Myanmar . . .

Policy goals, of course, sometimes remain elusive despite efforts at engagement. Iran, while initially intrigued by the idea of shipping uranium abroad for enrichment under International Atomic Energy Agency supervision, has now descended into a sea of political invective in the wake of controversial election results and an emerging internal opposition. Nevertheless, the president is working to build a coalition to impose a stricter set of sanctions . . .

Obama has judiciously used engagement in pursuit of our foreign policy goals. The measure of his success in using this tool will be judged by the effectiveness of our foreign policy in the hardest cases, like Iran and North Korea.

It's a decent capture and a decent defense, and it expresses the root of my frustration with the seeming lack of any big think in this administration:  SECSTATE has her lists and checks them off dutifully, Jones keeps the trains running at NSC, Gates runs his own kingdom--and well--but keeps his nose out of foreign policy, our special envoys are quite special and almost completely devoid of any accomplishments, the drawdowns proceed in Iraq and will proceed soon enough in Afghanistan and all balls are kept juggled.

What is the Obama vision?  Oh yeah, the world without nukes--the Nobel made good.  Like a Miss America contest focusing her answer down to world peace, there is an earnestness there, but likewise a distinct lack of imagination.  Obama gets to run the US at this point in history, and all we get is a world without nukes?

Moses, my man, don't go promising the land of milk and honey at year one of the 40-year wandering.

I will admit it:  I feel stale on the man.  I wrote the 12-step recovery program for a superpower in Great Powers and Obama checked them all off in the first year--just like I hoped he would because it all seemed so obvious and logical to me (go overboard, well . . . then you apologize and make it better--not exactly rocket science).  And the world (or just Norway--which is a decent approximation of the world's conscience) was just so happy in return ("A superpower that apologizes!") that it gave him the Nobel for Peace, even though he hadn't done anything concrete--just indicated that he would be far more polite and reasonable and consensual than his abrasive predecessor.

And then I waited for something to emerge after the first, realigning year.  

And I'm still waiting.  The nukes thing, I will admit, doesn't do anything for me.  I think it's goofy and meaningless and naive and a colossal waste of time. I know the man is busy with the economy and a rancorous Congress and he wants primarily to focus on domestic issues, but I think that window is going to close fast--as in, November.  

Eventually, this administration will have to show more vision than simply treading water and keeping its head up at all times. Eventually, when there's not much else that can be done in the domestic sphere, Obama will turn, as all presidents do, to foreign policy.

And he's going to need something beyond a world without nukes and everybody getting along.  Nothing that wrong with either notion, in the abstract, but in aggregate they do not constitute leadership. I see a world where China, India, Turkey, Brazil and others are all moving faster than the current, but we are not.

And the Obama administration does not seem to realize this. They seem very proud and happy just to keep the balls all moving and in the air.  

And that makes me very ambivalent, in a professional sense, about whether this guy is one-&-done or gets to stroke the back nine.


What happens to any Obama energy policy after the Gulf blowout/spill?

The Economist worries less about Obama's political standing post-disaster (hard to see how minds will be changed about him) than that of any prospective energy policy.  Before the disaster, "America was inching fitfully towards a coherent energy policy." Obama was in a giving mood: renewable energy subsidies, offshore drilling and more nukes. Now everything sees at risk or certainly on hold, and with the elections getting closer, the window for serious efforts may be gone in a matter of weeks.  

Now, Obama's energy policy seems boiled down to reforming the oil regulatory structure within the USG.  The big innovation? Splitting it in two so the guys who collect government royalties aren't the same guys enforcing safety.

In the end, the Deepwater Horizon may serve as a similar turning point as Katrina did for Bush--the divider between when Bush seemed to get his way on most things and when all that stopped suddenly.

Of course, the resulting hypocrisy on this will be magnificent: people will complain about waging wars in the Gulf (Persian, that is) because we're "addicted to oil" (a truly goofy description, if ever there was one) but likewise condemn any offshore drilling. But that's only par for the course.

Six of the world's 10 largest oil discoveries in the last couple of years have been in deep water, so the challenge isn't going away. Deepwater accounts for half our offshore production and one-quarter of our total oil production.

We will either pursue it or not, but others certainly will.


Obama: any grand vision for Asian security architecture? None yet detected.

Former Indian ambassador to Pakistan writing in WSJ (via WPR's Media Roundup).
Gist:  Obama seems eager to make any sort of relationship happen with China.  I could add:  Ditto on Pakistan.
The loser in these foci?  India, of course.

India has tried to prod the Obama administration into a more active role. New Delhi has recently had a detailed exchange of views on the Asia-Pacific region with the State Department's highest-ranking Asia official, Kurt Campbell, but much more needs to be done. While New Delhi welcomes cooperative and constructive relations between the U.S. and China, concerns in India are inevitable when the Sino-U.S. relationship is marked either by confrontation or collusion which undermines Indian interests.

Many Indians wonder if the Obama administration has any grand vision at all in shaping the emerging architecture for security and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. No one doubts that relations with the U.S. will remain a key feature of Indian foreign policy. But in the absence of mutual trust which characterized the relationship in the recent past, existing misgivings will not be put to rest merely by grand state banquets or glib talk about democracies being "natural partners."

I have advocated prioritizing China over India, but likewise India over Pakistan.  From India's perspective, Obama's performance to date must seem entirely opportunistic and reactive--the unwinding of crises with little sense of the structure to emerge.

I would not contest that characterization.


Will the post mid-term paralysis be far worse?

Yes, says Fred Barnes in the WSJ, thus the Democrats' urgency in shoving through legislation, insinuating that Obama will be forced to concentrate on foreign affairs after 2010, because that's what you do when you can't get any domestic agenda moving.  The wild card?  Shoving a value-added tax or VAT through a post-election lame-duck Congress.

Meanwhile, The Economist laments the "perverse impact" the looming elections are having on immigration.  Wild card there?  Harry Reid pushing an amnesty bill through the Senate so he can tap the 15% Hispanic voting pool in his state.  This may backfire.


Is Clinton in danger of becoming another symbolic SECSTATE?

Newsweek cover story celebrates Clinton's toughening up of Obama administration positions, but I find the piece uninspiring.

Clinton, we are told by Leslie Gelb,  "doesn't pretend to be, nor is she, a strategist.  She doesn't bring that to a table."  NSC adviser General Jones says she has "strategic vision," but we don't hear any in the piece.  To date, we live on her early speech about having lots of partners in the world.

Officials admit the first year was all brand-rebuilding.  Hirsch says, correctly, that "Clinton's and Obama's various policies do not yet add up to anything like a doctrine on America's place in the world."  In reply, Clinton bristles that "trying to have a very clear approach to actually dealing with those problems" (inherited from Bush-Cheney) and simultaneously trying promote American leadership "is about as big an idea as you can get."

So Clinton brags about not being able to focus on any one issue because her agenda is "enormous."

Sorry, but this sounds like the second coming of Condi Rice--always the chasing of events instead of triggering them.  And the "bad cop" bit comes off like a redux of Colin Powell's stint:  the great influencer and balancer who actually never gets her way.  But, oh boy, is she is admired for her "strength"!  

One NSC official puts it this way (anonymously, of course):

She has no real strategic vision.  But she'll get done what she has to do.  She's the good little Methodist girl.  In the end she'll have her list of the nine or 10 things she has to do and check them off one by one.

So what are we left with in this administration?  The Gates-Clinton axis that balances Obama's idealism and helps him unwind Iraq and Afghanistan, Jones keeping the training running at NSC, etc.

We've seen the magic of rebranding, but now we get this sense of caretaking, unwinding, and responding to the "enormous" agenda, at the top of which sits this dream of a world without nukes.

When Clinton let slip, early in the administration, about extending a nuclear umbrella over the Mideast, I thought, maybe she'll be the real foreign policy leader of note, somebody who thinks structurally.   But she drew back after catching flack for that, and so we're left with Obama's mushy nuclear vision and nobody--to date--even coming close to articulating anything substantial or even new.

But yeah, the crossing-off of items on the list continues  . . ..


WPR's The New Rules: In Politics, Don't Trust Anyone Over 50!

Wired magazine's May cover presents Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, while the accompanying article salutes the "hacker culture" that "conquered the world." Amid the political paralysis we now witness in Washington, it's a timely reminder of how all the top talent of the Boomer generation went into business and technology, while the dregs went into politics. Don't believe me? Try to imagine a politics-oriented magazine offering a similar cover: You couldn't get more than half of America to agree upon a single Boomer politician of Gates' historic stature.


Read the rest of the column at World Politics Review

As for the book mentioned:



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