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June 29, 2011

Douglas Feith and American Narcissism
Posted by David Shorr

NarcissusThe other day I argued we should rename the debate over American exceptionalism. Let's refer to the Republican candidates' ideology as American infallibility, since it's distinguished by unwavering belief in the inherent justness of American cause. Think of it as the Superman Doctrine, fighting the heroic "never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way" (these three things being synonymous, of course). 

Now that I've seen Douglas Feith and Seth Cropsey's new "Obama Doctrine Defined" piece in Commentary, we can say that the hardest of the hard-core critiques of Obama foreign policy is actually American Narcissism. According to Feith and Cropsey, President Obama has committed the cardinal sins of exercising self-restraint, showing a degree of self-awareness, and factoring the views non-Americans into his foreign policy. For them, the main imperative for America's foreign policy is that it must not hold back or show discretion:

American interests, rather than global interests, should predominate in U.S. policymaking. American leadership, as traditionally defined, is indispensible to promoting the interests of the United States and our key partners, who are our fellow democracies. American power is generally a force for good in the world. And, as important as international cooperation can be, the U.S. president should cherish American sovereignty and defend his ability to act independently to protect the American people and their interests.

Translation: job #1 is to ensure that other countries never keep America from exerting our power. Their argument is so wrapped up in self-regard that the rest of the world seems like an afterthought. They fret so nervously about preserving maximum freedom of action that they neglect to explain how their approach will actually achieve our national interests. Here's what I want to know: what does all this unapologetic assertiveness get you? Feith and Cropsey are incensed with President Obama and his advisers over the idea that America has been too much of a bully, yet they offer virtually no argument showing how their hyper-nationalist approach will yield results for US interests. 

There's one especially sleazy element of Feith and Cropsey's critique that I should flag. Right after noting that President Obama actually defied their caricature of him by winding down gradually in Iraq and building up our military presence in Afghanistan, the authors add this qualifier:

But those compromises reflect the president’s pragmatic judgment about the art of the possible, not his conviction about what kind of country America should ultimately become.

In other words, whenever Obama takes forceful action on behalf of national security, that's not the "real" Obama. He's only burnishing his post-partisan image as a moderate, which serves as a decoy. How convenient to be able to claim that the operation against Osama bin Laden or the predator drone strikes are separate from President Obama's true policy aims -- never mind the fact that he previewed the attacks in Pakistan early in his presidential campaign.

Only in an America with severe amnesia could American Narcissism be considered a credible alternative to the current policy. In the first paragraph I quote above, the passing reference to the importance of international cooperation is belied by the rest of the article, which heaps scorn on the things needed in order to gain cooperation. Having help from other nations is indeed important for the pursuit of common interests, and sometimes indeed to promote narrower national self-interests.

But more to the point, it is difficult to accomplish very much at all when a global superpower confronts widespread international suspicion or resistance -- something we should know from recent experience (thank you, Douglas Feith). Given this reality, I'll take self-awareness and self-restraint over self-involvement and self-regard.

Isn't It Possible that Our Military Operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan Are Actually Destabilizing Pakistan?
Posted by Eric Martin


There is widely accepted (though largely unexamined) conventional wisdom in US national security circles which holds that our military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan are serving to stabilize the Pakistani state.  Or, as it is more commonly construed, that the withdrawal of a large portion of our armed forces, and recalibration of our strategic objectives, would destabilize Pakistan and, as a result, put that country's nuclear arsenal in jeopardy of being seized by militant groups. 

What's odd is that this presumed dynamic runs counter to what are the most common effects of wars, generally speaking.  To state a series of truisms, wars have a tendency to destabilize regions, breed conflict, radicalize populations, empower warlords and militants, create huge refugee flows, give impetus to small arms proliferation that can perpetuate conflict, disrupt society's day-to-day ongoings and give rise to myriad other maladies that sow turmoil, rather than stability.

So why would our war be having an opposite, beneficial impact on the stability of Pakistan? The short answer is, it isn't.  One would be hard-pressed to argue that Pakistan is more stable now, than when we first invaded Afghanistan. The reasons are manifold.

Our continued military operations targeting a highly valued proxy of Pakistan's national security state (the Taliban), while shifting the balance of influence in Afghanistan away from Pakistan and toward a more India-friendly regime (Karzai's), is creating real divisions, anxiety and conflict within Pakistan.  That is true in terms of its political/military elites, as well as with smaller indigenous factions and groups becoming more radicalized and militarized in response to crackdowns and a perceived loss of sovereignty in the face of US demands.

Along these lines, we have been continuously pressuring Pakistani political leaders to cooperate with our goals and policy objectives, which have included both allowing us to strike individuals/groups on Pakistani soil, as well as to encourage the Pakistani military to undertake campaigns to root out various home-grown and foreign militant groups.  While these types of controversial, fraught policies would be a hard sell to a Pakistani public struggling with inequality and economic stagnation under even ideal circumstances, that these policies are seen as originating with the US government at a time when America is wildly unpopular, and our "interference" is viewed with the most nefarious assumptions, makes them political poison.

To sum it up, our military operations are roiling Pakistan's elites, giving rise to more anti-Americanism and radicalizing/mobilizing militant groups to act against the Pakistani state. Not to mention, greatly straining US/Pakistani relations.  That's not exactly a stability cocktail.

Nevertheless, there is a commonly held assumption that should we withdraw our forces, Pakistan would be further destabilized (without acknowledging the potential ameliorative effects) - with a particular emphasis on the possibility that Pakistani militants would use Afghanistan as a redoubt from which to wage war on the Pakistani state and, according to those warning of dire consequences, possibly overrun state facilities and seize nuclear material.

Joshua Rovner and Austin Long do an excellent job of puncturing this and other "strategic myths" commonplace in arguments for continuing the war in Afghanistan as it currently comprised. Here is a sample:

Continue reading "Isn't It Possible that Our Military Operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan Are Actually Destabilizing Pakistan?" »

June 28, 2011

UPDATED: [AUDIO] Experts Comment on Pawlenty's Foreign Policy Approach, GOP Divide
Posted by The Editors

In response to GOP presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty's major foreign policy speech addressing the Arab Spring at the Council on Foreign Relations, which only exposed the deepening divisions among conservatives on national security, the Center for American Progress and the National Security Network held a press call today with Dr. Lawrence Korb, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and former Assistant Secretary of Defense; Ken Gude, Managing Director of the National Security and International Policy Program at the Center for American Progress Action Fund; Peter Juul, Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress Action Fund; and Heather Hurlburt, Executive Director of the National Security Network.

Listen to the call here.

Eager to eschew the label of neoconservative, but unable to come to terms with the disastrous legacy of the Bush-Cheney-McCain foreign policy, today Pawlenty chastised his fellow candidates for flirting with isolationism but only offered a confused and incoherent mix of attacks on President Obama that betrayed his lack of national security experience.  As the experts on today's call discussed, Tim Pawlenty's plan and his approach to U.S. foreign policy, as laid out in his speech, are indicative of a larger cleavage in the Right's approach to foreign policy.

Highlights from the call:

  • NSN’s Heather Hurlburt likened the current GOP disarray on foreign policy to Democrats in 1968 when they abandoned their party’s foreign policy establishment.
  • CAP Action’s Ken Gude: "When you dig into the details of Tim Pawlenty's speech here today, you really get a stark assessment of what [Republicans] are trying to do—and it's pretty much a shambles."
  • Former Reagan administration Defense official Larry Korb, noting that he was “the last living Eisenhower Republican," said: “Pawlenty doesn’t even understand the Republican party history…he is confusing isolationism with realism.”

Several National Security Network reports and op-eds -including "Results vs Distractions," "Should Congress Shut Up?: 2012 and the Foreign Policy Debate" and NSN Special Advisor Maj. Gen. (ret.) Paul D. Eaton's "The Conservative Defense Myth"- as well as the Center for American Progress report, "Conservatives Crack Up on Foreign Policy," similarly explore the widening rift among conservative elites as the prospective presidential grope for a coherent policy framework. Given the conservative foreign policy establishment's aggressive policing of wayward statements from the candidates, it is likely that conservatives are heading into an even bigger fight over the nature and scope of their ideological coalition's foreign policy as the campaign season heats up.

*This post was updated to include call highlights and a newly posted NSN report, "Results vs Distractions."

Debating Afghanistan With Daniel Serwer
Posted by Michael Cohen

So this past Friday afternoon Daniel Serwer and I had nothing better to do so we decided to spend about 50 minutes debating Afghanistand and Obama's Wednesday speech - and it just happened that we recorded it. Except for the fact that my lighting stinks, I kept blowing my nose and my hair is doing weird things . . . it's kind of an interesting conversation. Check it out.



June 23, 2011

A Light At the End of the Tunnel?
Posted by Michael Cohen

So I have a piece up in the Atlantic today on Obama's speech and long-time DA readers will be surprised to find that I'm feeling pretty upbeat about it:

Reporter Bob Woodward's 2010 book-length account of the Obama administration's decision to escalate in Afghanistan shows Obama siding with Petraeus in 2009, but only ambivalently and conditionally, and in a way that suggested he was willing to give the counterinsurgency strategy a chance but was not convinced of its success. If there is one overriding takeaway from Obama's speech tonight, it is that the same President who 18 months ago was led by his generals into an escalation that he didn't appear to fully support has now taken back control of his policy in Afghanistan. Right now, that means leading U.S. strategy down the path of de-escalation. As Obama said, this not the end of the war in Afghanistan, but it's certainly the beginning of America's effort to "wind down the war." 

. . . Obama's decision to resolutely shift U.S. strategy is a critical recognition that the war in Afghanistan must begin to come to an end -- and offers a potential path for accomplishing that objective. While many will likely quibble over Obama's statement that the U.S. is "meeting our goals" in Afghanistan, perhaps a victory lap is the cover that the President feels he needs to begin the process of de-escalation. Tragically, U.S. soldiers, Afghan security forces, and Afghan civilians will continue to be maimed and to perish in Afghanistan. But, for the first time in ten years, the light at the end of the tunnel of the U.S. war there is suddenly visible.

Read the whole thing here; but I did want to touch on one point that I failed to explore in the Atlantic piece. For the past several months the US has been discussing a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan that would maintain a long-term US military presence in the country well past 2014.

Spencer thinks the problem here is that, "the U.S. is simultaneously asking the Taliban to end its insurgency while asking Karzai to let it stay in perpetuity for a shadow war against the Taliban’s longtime allies." I think that's overstating the point. The US, by seeking to negotiate a long-term security partnership with the Karzai government, is a) hedging its bets in case political reconciliation goes nowhere b) providing themselves with a political negotiating chit in talks with the Taliban and c) furthering the US interest in maintaining US drone capabilities in the region, which is particularly important if a) happens. So in the end, I don't think the SPA is quite as significant a deal-breaker as Spencer does.

Actually the problem last night was that Obama didn't mention the SPA. It was a glaring and dangerous omission in his remarks.

The result, I fear, is that the Taliban may infer that the US commitment to Afghan security is fleeting and thus the Taliban can simply wait for the Americans to leave. While that perception is almost certainly wrong it may in the near term lead the Taliban to avoid political negotiations, further delaying the reconciliation process. It would be wise for the Administration to clarify this issue and restate its commitment to maintaining a long-term presence - even if they don't mean it, such a clarification would actually help not hinder the process of political reconciliation.

June 22, 2011

Military Advice to the President - Public or Private?
Posted by David Shorr

From my perch at care2, I've added some questions to those raised by Michael re: Kori Schake's ideas about the role of military advice in the public debate over presidents' war policies. And then one further thought that I omitted. If you look at Kori's post alongside her fellow Shadow Government bloggers, the "arbitrary deadlines" trope is all the rage. I suppose in the first couple years of a military intervention, a fixed end point might be a bit artificial. After a full decade of fighting, though, it's not arbitrary -- it's setting a reasonable limit and keeping the mission from dragging on year after year on the weight of its own momentum. 

UPDATED: I just posted a reaction to the speech over at care2.

Kori Schake's Unique Take on Civ-Mil Relations
Posted by Michael Cohen

Drstrangelove_40ae_08 Over at Shadow Government, Kori Schake is surprisingly happy with President Obama's umpteenth review of Afghanistan policy, but believes that if he goes against the military's advice he needs to explain why:

The president has the right to choose policies contrary to their (the military) advice; it's his job as Commander in Chief to weigh the broader costs and trade-offs associated with governing our country. 

. . .  It's the president's choice. That's what he gets elected for.  He does not, however, get to make his choices without having to explain why he disregarded military advice. There may be compelling reasons; in the case of Afghanistan that would be difficult to square with the president's own earlier statements about the importance of the war.  If President Obama chooses to disregard our military and civilian defense leadership's counsel on Afghanistan, he will owe them -- and us -- an explanation.

This is grade-A silliness. Actually maybe I'm wrong; excuse me while I peruse my copy of the Constitution to find the section that explains how the duly elected commander-in-chief has to politely explain to his military commanders that he likes them a lot, but he's just not ready to commit. Oops, I can't find it.

Indeed, I don't remember when George W. Bush explained to the American people how he was disregarding his generals about the US having too few troops to invade Iraq; or FDR had a heart-to-heart with his generals about how the Allies were going to push off the invasion of France for a few years or focus on the European theater rather than the Pacific.

The President has no responsibility whatsoever to explain to the military as to why he ignored or disregarded their advice. Indeed, does he have a responsibility to explain why he ignored Joe Biden's advice in 2009? Or if the President rejected the advice of other civilian advisors does he have a responsibility to explain why their counsel was rejected? Of course not, and no one would suggest otherwise. But as it is in all facets of our national life, somehow the military resides on some different plain where the civilian leadership must be deeply solicitous of their concerns (even when their military and strategic advice is, as has been the case in Afghanistan, consistently wrong). Every once in a while it's worth remembering who actually is in charge here.

June 21, 2011

David Brooks' Shot at Foreign Aid
Posted by David Shorr

Najiba-Fazzay-Afghanistan (1)

In his trademark fashion, David Brooks crams a lot of issues into his critique today of US reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan: ambitious government initiatives, social engineering, the poverty-violence link (known in the trade as "greed v. grievance"), the (in)effectiveness of foreign aid, and smart power foreign policy. Whew. Your humble blogger won't attempt to tackle all of these subjects -- nor even offer a verdict on the stabilization efforts in Afghanistan. But I do want to address the question of effectiveness, and its implications for smart power.

On that issue, we have a problem of how we look at / talk about foreign aid, and Brooks' wide-roaming critique is symptomatic. Just look at the different rubrics he mentions in his assessment of Afghanistan: health, education, economic growth, stability, violence, employment of the most highly educated, and corruption / governance. Apart from any assumptions about links between quality of life and instability -- Brooks' main line of criticism -- to judge aid effectiveness fairly we need to distinguish among the varied objectives of different aid efforts, and overcome our tendency to lump them together.

So when Brooks laments over the vain efforts "to learn from past foreign aid disappointments" and the "discouraging results," he needs to know that some of the lessons learned by aid professionals tend to be obscured by the way pundits elide the different categories and objectives of aid.

David Brooks, meet Jean Arkedis, author of a Center for Global Development paper that summarizes practitioners' concerns over the tangled mandates and purposes of aid:

Most commentators recognize that aid is used as a tool to advance development, to promote strategic interests, and to address humanitarian needs, but they often fail to recognize how and where these interests are at odds and where they may be mutually reinforcing.

It's true, there is a certain sloppiness to the debate over aid effectiveness. Foreign aid is a matter of matching goals to local realities and choosing among objectives that involve trade-offs. All too often, the critique of aid effectiveness is disconnected from those choices. As a long-time proponent of the smart power idea of combining development, diplomacy, and defense (known in the trade as "3-D security"), I found the Arkedis paper instructive in pointing out that foreign aid -- far from being focused principally on economic development -- is spread across all three of the "Ds." Indeed, one result of being more rigorous in distinguishing categories and purposes of aid is to show what portion of aid is aimed at development, versus relief, stabilization, health, education, military professionalization, or good relations with a strategically important country.

So where does this leave the smart power approach to foreign policy? Brooks is correct that progress in other countries proceeds along different tracks and time lines. But for every time Secretary Clinton has talked about the varied tools in the smart power tool box, she has also highlighted the challenge of working simultaneously on "the urgent, the important, and the long-term."

We don't even need to be quite so patient as Brooks indicates, when he talks about development requiring not merely years or decades, but generations. Just look at the progress achieved in South Korea or China within the span of a single generation or in Brazil or India within less than a decade's time. We need patience, yes, but clarity even more.

Photo credit: USAID / Jhpiego

June 17, 2011

Still Confused About Afghanistan
Posted by Michael Cohen

About two years ago when I first started writing about Afghanistan here at Democracy Arsenal I wrote a blog post titled "Confused in Afghanistan." Since then my confusion has only grown and this week as I watch from afar the White House debate on Afghanistan it seems to have hit "peak befuddlement" point. 

LBJ I can't, for the life of me, understand how there is even a serious debate about troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. That we are debating 'barely any withdrawal' versus a 'smaller withdrawal of about 10,00-15,000 troops' rather than the latter and a much larger withdrawal or a shift in strategy toward a more counter-terrorism oriented approach is baffling to me. This is as close to a political and strategic no-brainer as you are ever going to find.

Look at the evidence. Recent military gains notwithstanding, we know that the current strategy is failing badly. Afghan Taliban safe havens in Pakistan remain unmolested (at the same that the US-Pakistan relations havve hit probably their lowest point since September 11th); the Afghan government remains as corrupt and feckless as ever, with little apparent inclination to initiate much needed governance reforms; and the ASNF and police appear no closer to being given major security responsibilities, particularly in insecure areas. While the
Taliban is clearly on its heels it's also relatively obvious that they remain a resilient insurgent force able to operate effectively across broad swaths of the country.

In short, there is precious little evidence that the much touted military gains that we've seen over the past six months can be sustained; and there is even less evidence that the Pakistani government or our Afghan allies (when they are not killing American soldiers) share the same interests and objectives that we do.

A lack of progress on these strategic inputs should hardly be a huge surprise (they were relatively obvious 18 months ago); but it's worth noting that the same people advising the President on what to do next were confidently predicting success in the Fall of 2009. Remember this conversation:

Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, “David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?”

“Sir, I’m confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame,” Petraeus replied.

“Good. No problem,” the president said. “If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?”

“Yes, sir, in agreement,” Petraeus said.

“Yes, sir,” Mullen said.

It's also worth keeping in mind that back in the summer of 2009, Stanley McChrystal (and his enablers in the think tank world) went to great lengths to argue that the current metrics being used to tout success in Afghanistan, body counts and dead Taliban commanders, should be de-emphasized. Rather, as the argument went, civilian casualties were the single most important metric for success - and reducing them must be the focal point of US efforts in Afghanistan. That May 2011 was the single deadliest month for Afghan civilians since the UN began keeping track of such numbers is another reminder of how much we should trust and/or listen to earlier proponents of escalation in Afghanistan about what next steps should be taken today (short answer: not much).

But let's put aside the obvious evidence of military stalemate and strategic failure - how about the politics of the war? In just the past week, 27 Senators of the President's own party have signed a letter urging "sizable" troops withdrawals from Afghanistan; this follows on a vote in the House in which all but 8 Democratic Congressmen voted for an amendment calling for the same thing. And even the Republicans are jumping ship: on Monday human political weather vane Mitt Romney called for a quicker drawdown of US troops from the fight. This dovetails with public opinion polling, which suggests that most Americans are tired of the war and want the troops to start coming home. If there is a political constituency anywhere outside the US military for continuing this fight I'm at a loss to think of one. Finally, this entire debate is taking place a mere month or so after the United States killed Osama bin Laden, which gave the President a rare political opportunity to pursue a policy of de-escalation in the war on terrorism.

You throw all these data points into the mix and what is the takeaway: that it would be strategic and political malpractice to throw good money after bad and continue with a policy that is both failing and is deeply unpopular across the political spectrum. The notion that the President would give the military six months or more to pursue the current policy is a hair short of insanity. (Here is a much better way to proceed, Mr. President).

He does that and we may need to start calling our President, 'Barack Baines Obama.'

The Debate on American Infallibility, Not Exceptionalism
Posted by David Shorr


Glad to see Roger Cohen's critique of the emerging 2012 foreign policy debate in this morning's International Herald Tribune. As Cohen points out, the Republican candidates are all peddling the same caricature:

They're trying to cast Barack Obama as a president who has sold America short, an impostor who has ditched the mystical belief in the unique calling of the United States that is American exceptionalism.

The real problem is the mislabeling of this debate. It's the idea of American infallibility, not exceptionalism, that divides the president and his critics. The Republican party line is that America knows best, and the only thing our foreign policy needs is to be firmer, more resolute, uncompromising, unwavering, resolute, and insistent. More like we really mean it. To my ears, the GOP leaders all sound like they're flattering themselves with the fantasy of being the Winston Churchills of our time -- courageously resisting evil forces.

American exceptionalism is the proposition that the United States is more than just another nation among 192, that we have constructive or even crucial leadership to offer. President Obama and his challengers are on the same side of that issue. American infallibility, on the other hand, rests on a moral clarity that sweeps aside any need to solicit others' support, understand other perspectives, or reach compromises.

As it's so often the case, you only need Stephen Colbert's brilliant satire to know how disconnected this is from reality. When Donald Trump withdrew from the 2012 race, Colbert fretted over the loss for foreign policy: "Who's gonna tell OPEC the fun is over? Who's gonna tell China to go f*** themselves?"

As I argued before Trump's withdrawal, he was merely voicing a cruder version of the same superficial, self-righteous, out-of-touch foreign policy approach as the others. Roger Cohen quoted Bruce Jentleson in his column and so will I, the following passage from Bruce and Steve Weber's excellent End of Arrogance book:

In a complex and rapidly changing environment it does not work well to repeatedly reinforce who we are and what we stand for. We know those things, and we know how they shape what we do, how we act, how we respond. Strategy is ultimately about how we influence what others do.

This is my test of seriousness for those who aspire to be commander in chief. And I'm still waiting to hear a candidate take the challenge of real-world effectiveness any more seriously than Donald Trump.


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