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October 31, 2011

What Can the G-20 Do In Cannes?
Posted by David Shorr

TorontosummitTomorrow I'm heading to Cannes in the French Riviera. Not for a film festival, but the foreign policy wonk's equivalent: a global world leaders' summit. The same G-20 club of key economic powers that bolstered the global financial system against collapse in 2009 is meeting amidst the current turbulence in the Eurozone. (The Stanley Foundation has set up a page, if you want to see all our media comments.)

Today my preview of the summit was published over at The Atlantic, under the headline, "The G-20: The Committee to Not Save the World." That's pretty catchy, as titles go. Just needs one tweak to really work for me: "The Committee to Not Save the World Right Away." I actually think the G-20 could become an invaluable workshop where world leaders develop shared approaches to problems that have tended to be divisive. As my Atlantic piece points out, a major question for the G-20 is the pace and timeframe for it to emerge as a major producer of diplomatic consensus. Bear in mind, the group's defining feature is the way it brings to the table leaders from both the rising and established powers as peer equals -- unlike the vanila-flavored G-7, this forum includes Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, China, and South Africa, to name a few. In other words, its comparative advantage is also its burden. 

Now consider the Eurozone debt crisis currently serving as the backdrop for the G-20 meeting. The relationship between the two is ambiguous, given the fundamental issues the sovereign debt poses for Europe internally. Still, it's probably good to have the wider world breathing down the Europeans' necks, given the threat of yet another financial contagion. Yet careening from crisis to crisis is no way to run the world, and G-20 leaders are keenly aware of that. This is why the group's signature agenda items are economic rebalancing and financial regulation, which are the essential underpinnings for a growing global economy. Puttingn it mildly, neither of these -- shifting export-based economies (China, Germany) to greater consumer spending, or reducing leverage in financial markets -- is a simple matter.

This the epitome of multilateral cooperation, leaders challenging themselves / each other to take politically difficult steps. Given the necessity of rebalancing for any sustained progress and prosperity, they have to come through on this; given the difficulty, they can't wave a magic wand. When you hear about the IMF Mutual Assessment Process -- I know, really wonkish sounding -- that represents the G-20's plan for pinpointing the causes of imbalances to spur out-of-balance countries to act. When you recall that a couple of years ago China wouldn't even let these issues be discussed, I'm ready to give some credit and have some patience. 

Interdependent-ist true believers like myself think the G-20 should tackle a broader range of issues. While that may sound contrary to what I just said above, I could walk you through a whole wonkish argument about how the incremental progress on these main items leaves diplomatic bandwidth for other items, but I won't bore you with all that.

Fresh from a weekend with other G-20 wonks at the annual conference of Canada's Centre for International Governance Innovation (here's their pre-Cannes page), I can convey a consensus view of experts whatever their views on the breadth of the forum's agenda. First, take a glance at the above picture from the Toronto G-20 summit. If the essence of a summit-level forum like the G-20 is the chance for top leaders to personally hash things out, then summits must have a format conducive to genuine negotiation rather than ritualized speech-reading. Looking at that picture from Toronto, which do you think is taking place? Even more to the point, the summit is too damn short! The world's most powerful men and women will come to Cannes from all over God's creation and meet for an afternoon, an evening, and a morning. And believe it or not, starting the Cannes program with lunch on the first day actually represents an expanded schedule compared with other G-20 summits. As I say, this issue tapped into deep frustrations among the G20-heads at our conference. 

In a few days, we'll see what President Obama and his colleagues were able to accomplish.

Our False Debate on Cutting Defense Spending
Posted by Michael Cohen

Robert Samuelson has made quite a career for himself saying wrong-headed things about Robert_samuelson2 economic policy, deficits and entitlements; and it now appears that he wants to add "saying wrong-headed things about defense policy" to his list of accomplishments. (As an op-ed writer for the Washington Post he clearly is in good company).

Today's piece by Samuelson in the Washington Post is truly a tour de force of the all-the-rage dubious, evidence-free argument that one hears all over Washington these days; namely that cutting defense spending will weaken US security. Says Samuelson:

A central question of our budget debates is how much we allow growing spending on social programs to crowd out the military and, in effect, force the United States into a dangerous, slow-motion disarmament.

Let's ignore for a moment the ludicrous idea that social program spending is at risk of crowding out defense spending; there are two interesting assumptions being offered here - 1) military spending is more important than social program spending and 2) reducing military spending is "dangerous."

Voters have overwhelmingly said they prefer protecting Medicare, Social Security and other social programs to spending more money on the military. And from the standpoint of basic American needs and security their preferences are correct: social programs do more to help Americans live long and healthy lives and spur the economy than spending on the armed forces. Moreover, why would a slow-motion disarmament of the US make this country less safe? Samuelson doesn't answer that question because like many a Washington pundit he simply assumes that more spending on defense = more security.

What's more he doesn't really seem to understand how particular defense outlays impact actual security:

People who see military cuts as an easy way to reduce budget deficits forget that this has already occurred. From the late 1980s to 2010, the number of America’s armed forces dropped from 2.1 million men and women to about 1.4 million. 

Samuelson is right that the size of the military decreased for 1980 to 2010, but glosses over the fact that from fiscal year 2000-2009 it jumped 9% annually, reversing many of the cuts made to the armed forces in the 1990s. The US has a smaller military force than it had at the end of the Cold War, but considering the changing nature of US threats of course it has a smaller military. We're no longer confronting hordes of Soviet troops in the Fulda Gap. That US defense budgets remain as large if not larger than Cold War budgets even as the existential threats to America have been dramatically reduced is a far more important issue - and one ignored by Samuelson.

And then there is this:

True, Iraq and Afghanistan raised defense budgets. As these wars conclude, lower spending will shrink overall deficits. But the savings will be smaller than many expect because the costs — though considerable — were smaller than they thought. From fiscal year 2001 to 2011, these wars cost $1.3 trillion, says the Congressional Budget Office. 

Iraq and Afghanistan didn't just raise defense spending; they grew Pentagon budgets at a pace far higher than other non-discretionary spending (approximately 50% of which is now taken up by the defense budget). Of course, we now know that the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were exponentially larger than expected. Or have we all forgetten Larry Lindsey.

But the $1.3 trillion number is the real problem here because it glosses over the issue of indirect costs. By some estimates the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost the United States $3 billion in direct and indirect costs. And here's the real rub; those are sunk costs that basically did nothing to make Americans safer. It's not like that $1.3 trillion was spent on improving the education system or modernizing our health care or placing Medicare on stronger structural grounds - all spending categories that would have important multipllier effects.  Rather it was spent on wars that did nothing to help the US economy and in fact harmed US national interests. But again if you approach the issue of defense spending, as Samuelson does, from the perspective that more spending = more security these issues tend to be ignored.

In an effort to burst the supposed "myths" around defense cuts, Samuelson argues that "spending on social programs replaced military spending, but that shift has gone too far" but provides not one example of where social spending has gotten out of control and where supposed cuts in military spending have weakened our security. 

He says that even though the US spends exponentially more on its military than China, "China’s military manpower is about 50 percent greater than ours, and it has a fighter fleet four-fifths as large" but doesn't bother to argue why that should be a concern to US policymakers? is China automatically a threat to the United States simply becuase it has a large standing army? He says this "like most bureaucratic organizations, the Pentagon will always have some waste. It’s a myth that it all can be surgically removed without weakening the military." Yet, if Samuelson had bothered to do some research into the topic he might have come across this report by the Sustainable Defense Task Force that lays out $1 trillion in defense cuts over ten years that deals with Pentagon waste and a host of other issues and won't weaken US security. 

Finally, there is this:

Those who advocate deep cuts need to specify which goals — combating cyber warfare, countering China, fighting terrorism — should be curtailed. Would that be good for us? The world?

Today the US and its allies are responsible for approximately 70% of all global military spending. Across America states are laying off teachers, firefighters and police officers. The Senate can't pass a measly $45 billion in stimulus spending. If Samuelson is going to argue that the US continue to spend approximately $650 billion on defense its somewhat incumbent upon him to argue why such extravagant defense spending is necessary. Moreover, it is also incumbent upon the sky is falling defense hawks to demonstrate why a $650 billion military is needed to fight terrorism, combat cyber-warfare or counter China. I think if Samuelson talked to actual supporters of cutting the defense budget as opposed to strawman composites he would probably find most of them are more than happy to lay out what military goals should be curtailed (I'll start with two; stop subsidizing European security via NATO and reduce the size of the armed forces).

If we spent a bit less or a bit more than than could anyone seriously argue that it would have a demonstrative impact on our security? (and to be clear this is the size of the cuts that we are talking about) Maybe Samuelson believes that such cuts are incredibly dangersou and he has detailed reasons why, but he makes no effort to prove that it is correct. He simply takes as a given that cutting spending = less security without bothering to take the time to engage in the intellectual exercise of explaining why.

In that respect Samuelson has a lot in common with the way most of Washington talks about the defense budget.

October 28, 2011

The Pakistani Conundrum
Posted by Michael Cohen

Spencer Ackerman is really pissed at Pakistan: Pakistan

It is very difficult to see how non-punitive measures have aided the U.S. in dealing with Pakistan. Massively generous economic assistance, military relief assistance during floods and earthquakes, literally bags full of cash to the military, nuclear-capable fighter jets -- and this is what we get.

Fuck that. No more. It's time for the U.S. to stop issuing idle threats about how Pakistan must take on the Haqqanis OR ELSE. Cut off all aid until the Pakistanis stop helping any insurgent networks and shut the safe havens down. Pull the drones from Shamsi to Jalalabad and fucking bombs-away. Let the Chinese move into Khyber-Pakhtunkwa and announce a brand new relationship with the subcontinent's real superpower, India. Watch that shit concentrate the Pakistani imagination.

Part of American leadership is not allowing client states to dick us around. If this is how Pakistan wants it, then it should get a commensurate response. 

I sympathize with Spencer's frustration; and he's of course right that our client state is dicking us around, but then ALL of our client states dick us around (think about it). Still his solution to the problem is not helpful and won't work.

First, we need Pakistan - both in the counter-terrorism fight against the remnants of al Qaeda and in transporting resources to the fight in Afghanistan. Both of these factors limit how far we can and should go in putting pressure on Pakistan. And of course the Pakistanis know this. When we've reached the point that we don't care what happens within Pakistan's borders we can get tough. But clearly that hasn't happened yet; and won't any time soon.

Second, Pakistan has interests equal to and greater than maintaining its relationship with the United States - namely protecting its interests in Afghanistan. I realize I've become a bit of broken record on this point, but the simple fact is that the Pakistani security services and likely its government have concluded that a strong, independent Karzai government backed by the India is not in Pakistan's strategic interest - at all. This is why they continue to support the various Taliban insurgent groups; so they can maximize their influence in Afghanistan and prevent what would amount to a Karzai, i.e. Indian victory. Every tool that the US has used to try and shift Pakistan away from that strategic calculus has failed, whether its the carrot or the stick (ish). I don't see any reason to believe that a stronger stick will bring better results. If anything, browbeating the Pakistanis and threatening them will almost certainly backfire and would likely work directly against our interests.

Third, Pakistan is more important than Afghanistan. This is the point that all of this flag-waving over Islamabad's behavior seems to miss. In the end, what happens in Afghanistan is of secondary importance to what happens in nuclear-armed, jihadist terrorist supporting Pakistan. At least that is the case from a narrow reading of US interests in the region. The notion that we should get in a pissing match with the Pakistanis to prop our currently losing fight in Afghanistan is the height of folly. Considering that we are already headed toward the exits in Afghanistan our focus should be on repairing relations with Islamabad not making things worse.

In the end, yes the Pakistanis are waging a proxy war in Afghanistan; yes they have the blood of US soliders on their hands; yes they are a lousy, crappy client state. But none of this was a surprise when we chose to escalate in 2009; and there was no good reason to believe that anything would change in the two years hence (and of course nothing has).

Instead of continuing to try - and failing - to convince Pakistan to act in a manner that is contrary to their perceived national interests we should be doing something we haven't really done for ten years: factoring their strategic calculus into our foreign policy decision-making. That would mean pulling back from fighting a completely pointless war in Afghanistan and rather moving forward with a serious and comprehensive strategy for political reconciliation that protects Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan.

Our problems with Pakistan are a direct result of the failed strategy that we've employed in Afghanistan. Fixing that is a heck of a lot more important and worthwhile then getting in a counter-productive pissing match with Pakistan.

October 26, 2011

Anticipating Herman Cain's Foreign Policy
Posted by James Lamond


There has been great speculation and fun guessing games throughout the 2012 GOP primaries about what a Tea Party foreign policy would look like. Ideological consistency would, of course, lead to an isolationist-leaning approach. A movement claiming to have been founded out of concern over the growing role of the government and deficit issues would naturally oppose excessive defense spending, "global war on terror" policies and an overall less aggressive and expensive foreign policy. But as has been outlined before, with the possible exception of Ron Paul, that has not been the case. 

Josh Rogin's peice today about Herman Cain, the current Tea Party favorite, and his foreign policy team is the latest in the trend. Cain's chief adviser, J.D. Gordon who previously worked on detainee affairs in the Bush administration and later at Frank Gaffney's neoconservative think tank, the Center for National Security, appears to be a defender of the very policies that a libertarian would likely reject. 

Last year he wrote this defense of why Guantanamo Bay prison should remain open: 

Ironically, the "mess" at Guantanamo that Mr. Obama cited was caused to a great extent by the damaging, yet disingenuous, characterizations continuously repeated by those who supported him on the campaign trail. Wildly exaggerated claims of detainee abuse, factual misrepresentations regarding conditions of confinement and interrogations (for instance, waterboarding was never used there) and false portrayals of most detainees as innocent goat herders sold for bounties helped create such an internationally controversial symbol.

As Mr. Cheney recounted in his American Enterprise Institute speech, the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 was an extraordinarily challenging time in which the George W. Bush administration made tough choices from the bunker that kept the country safe from a repeat attack on American soil.

Some of those tough choices proved difficult to sustain over the years. Such was the case of sending al Qaeda- and Taliban-linked detainees to Guantanamo and holding them under the international-law-of-war context similar to prisoners of war - though technically without the same rights, as they were unlawful enemy combatants, along with a lack of meaningful transparency that undermined public accountability.

I admittedly do not know the details of Mr. Gordon or the rest of the team's intellectual foundations. However this combined with Mitt Romney's getting the PNAC band back together, it appears neocons and hawks are not out for the count, despite the Tea Party rhetoric. I do look forward to Herman Cain's expected foreign policy address, and how much it looks like Mitt Romney's recent speech, which was clearly influenced by the PNAC crowd, verses George W. Bush's "humble" plans for foreign policy in 2000. 


October 25, 2011

Tell Me Now If You Want Me to Stay; It Don't Matter, 'Cause I'd Stay Here Anyway
Posted by Eric Martin


My colleague Michael Cohen wrote a piece rightly taking Republican lawmakers to task for criticizing the recent decision by President Obama to remove all troops from Iraq by year's end.  What renders the GOP critique of Obama hollow and tendentious is that it's not really Obama's decision at all.

By way of background, the Bush administration negotiated a form of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the sovereign Iraqi government whereby the United States agreed to withdraw all troops by the end of 2011. While many in the United States expected this SOFA to be extended, a funny thing happened along the way: The Iraqi government did not agree to extend immunity to US troops going forward, effectively scuttling any extension of the SOFA. 

Despite what our preferred policy outcomes might be, a continued US presence in Iraq is not a popular position amongst Iraqi lawmakers/voters.  Simply put, Maliki lacks the political support to push for such an agreement (assuming that he would even prefer to keep US forces in country for a longer period and would be willing to expend political capital in pursuit of such a policy).

Since Obama could not (in his right mind) agree to keep troops in Iraq without immunity, and since the Iraqi government has established its terms, Obama has no viable option other than to remove US forces as per the terms of the Bush administration's SOFA.

Nevertheless, the usually fair-minded James Joyner chides Cohen for his rebuttal to Obama's critics on this issue. 

While there are no doubt many Republicans looking for any excuse to condemn Obama for foreign policy weakness, there's an actual policy dispute here. Retired General Jack Keane...declares, "We won the war in Iraq, and we're now losing the peace." He continues, "We should be staying there to strengthen that democracy, to let them get the kind of political gains they need to get and keep the Iranians away from strangling that country. That should be our objective, and we are walking away from that objective."

Keane claims that current US commander in Iraq, General Lloyd Austin, wanted at least 15,000 troops for 2012 and preferred 25,000. [emphasis added]

But here's the thing: there isn't actually any "policy dispute" here. Regardless of what anyone thinks we "should be" doing and regardless of how many troops a military commander might "want" to remain in Iraq, the choice is not Obama's to make. Hence, no dispute.

That is, unless the policy dispute is whether Obama should usurp and/or topple the Maliki government and either keep troops in Iraq under a hostile posture vis-a-vis the Iraqi government, or install a more pliable regime in its place - one that would green light a continued US troop presence. But if that is the dispute, let's have out with a debate on the merits and parameters, instead of vague complaints about Obama's lack of omnipotence.

Joyner continues his basless critique of Cohen:

But Cohen paints with too broad a brush in applying that critique to Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, die-hard American Greatness conservatives who truly believe that Americans can reshape the region and the world if we simply give it enough time, troops, and willpower. Cohen points out that these men have been staunch advocates for the democratization of Iraq and sees hypocrisy in now chiding Obama for not working harder to defy the will of the Iraqi people. But support for democracy doesn't necessarily mean liking the policy outcomes that come from it. By that logic, McCain shouldn't express any opinions about US foreign policy at all on the basis that the American electorate preferred Obama over him in 2008. [emphasis added]

That analogy doesn't really hold, however.  To more accurately maintain the corollary, McCain can certainly continue to express opinions on US policy under the Obama administration, but he shouldn't seek to topple the US government or flagrantly disobey its sovereignty/laws. That's kind of a big difference.

In fact, the analogy would be apt if these GOP figures and military leaders were criticizing the Iraqi government's decision not to renew the SOFA. After all, support for democracy doesn't necessarily mean liking the policy outcomes that come from it.  But one should recognize which party is responsible for those policy outcomes, and which isn't.

(Photo Credit: Christian Science Monitor)

October 24, 2011

What's The Matter With (Peter Baker's Profile of) Leon Panetta?
Posted by Michael Cohen

So today the New York Times has a page one profile of new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta - and well, it's a funny thing, apparently the New York Times couldn't find a single person to say a critical word about the Panetta's performance as Sec Def. 

What I find particularly strange about this is that last week I wrote 1400 words here offering a more critical assessment of Panetta's job to date and in particular his over-the-top rhetoric on defense spending. Now granted my take is the furthest thing from definitive ... but in writing that piece I was struck by how many smart observers of US national security policy had less than charitable assessments of Panetta's efforts.

Here is Winslow Wheeler with repeated critiques of Panetta's alarmist language on the impact of defense spending.

Here's Bill Hartung criticizing Panetta's claim that reducing defense spending will increase unemployment (and here's another pointing out that his criticisms of defense spending are a tad fact-free).

Here's a few posts from Ben Armbruster at Think Progress pointing out the hollowness of Panetta's claims that spending reductions in DoD's budget will result in a hollowed out military.

Here's Spencer Ackerman completely destorying Panetta's pander-ific speech at the AUSA conference.

Here's Andrew Sullivan pointing out Panetta's inclination to "go native" first at the CIA and now the Pentagon.

I could go on, but the point is that there is hardly a dearth of criticism out there of Panetta's performance. Is it too much to ask the New York Times to find a couple of them?

And one last point on this; here's the kicker of Baker's story on Panetta: 

Asked about inspirations, Mr. Panetta nodded toward portraits of Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Marshall. “These two guys were always, you know, kind of heroes of mine,” he said. “So every once in a while, I turn around in that chair and look at them and say, you know, what the hell would you do?”

He laughed. “The problem is,” he said, “they’re not talking back.”

If they did talk back, you know what they might tell him? Well Dwight D. Eisenhower would probably counsel Panetta to utilize the remainder method when determining DoD's budget (that means spending money on domestic priorities and letting the remainder go to the Pentagon). At the very least Ike would probably find Panetta's recent posturing on defense spending to be completely unseemly. Here's the thing: if you're going to cite an esteemed national figure as an inspiration you might want to know what they actually believed.

A New Low For Republicans On Foreign Policy
Posted by Michael Cohen

Limbo dancerAt this point one has to almost take for granted that Republicans are going to criticize
President Obama's foreign policy performance for the most hare-brained of reasons - he doesn't strongly support Israel when in fact he does strongly support Israel; he apologizes on behalf of the United States to other countries when in fact he's never apologized on behalf of the United States; he should intervene in Libya, oh no he shouldn't intervene in Libya (that's the Newt Gingrich version of this phenomenon). 

As regular readers of this blog are well aware I am not one to mince words when it comes to offering criticism of President Obama and his foreign policy team, but I at least try to have some, you know, actual substance to these criticisms.

In contract, Republicans have, in recent days, reached new and unimaginable depths of absurdity in criticizing the President on foreign policy. First there is the death of Muammar Gaddafi, a tyrant who ruled his country with an iron fist for more than 40 years, has the blood of Americans on his hands and in an amazing seven months after US intervention has been toppled from power and killed. Clearly this is a policy worthy of praise even from GOP partisans?

Oh no, not so fast says noted foreign policy expert Marco Rubio - the real credit belongs to the British and French not the United States, which as Rubion seems not to know took the military lead, organized an international coallition and pushed a resolution authorizing force through the Security Council. (By the way, try to imagine for a second if a leading Democrat had given credit for a US military triumph to the French?  The French! Literally you'd be seeing attack ads with that clip until the universe collapses in on itself millions of years from now).

The other critique - and it's a priceless one - is that Obama screwed up because he didn't act soon enough to topple Gaddafi. You see if Obama hadn't been sitting around the White House like a modern-day Chamberlain until Sarkozy lit a fire under his ass, Gaddafi could have been gone by the Spring and there would already have been democratic elections in Libya.  Ignoring the fact that because of the rebels disorganization in the early days of the war there is no reason to believe they could have toppled Qaddafi any sooner - is this really the best Repubilcans can do? Without the active involvement of the United States both militarily and even more important diplomatically it's highly unlikely that the "British and French" would have been able to organize a coalition to assist the rebels. Is is really that hard for them to give even grudging credit to the President for helping get rid of Gaddafi? Apparently the answer is yes.

But the criticism on Libya is relatively anodyne compared to the GOP attacks on Iraq in the wake of news that President Obama will be pulling all US troops out of Iraq by the end of the year. First you have John McCain calling troop withdrawals from Iraq a "serious mistake." Although in fairness when it comes to supporting military interventions that are serious mistakes, John McCain knows a thing or two. But my favorite was Lindsey Graham today on Fox News Sunday. Here's what he had to say: "At a time when we need troops in Iraq to secure the country, we have none. It was his job to end this right [and] they failed."

By the way, funny story, Lindsey Graham . . . voted to authorize the use of force when he was a US Senator in 2002. So apparently consistently supporting what is possibly the worst foreign policy debacle in US history = success. Ending that military debacle = failure.

The thing, however, that I find so deeply fascinating about Graham's argument is that there is actually a pretty good reason why the US is pulling all its troops out of Iraq at the end of the year - we said we would. In fact, not only did we say it; we signed an agreement committing ourselves to full withdrawal from Iraq at the end of this year. And of course, when I say "we" I mean George W. Bush - the guy who signed that deal. What's fascinating is that this "fact" never seems to be incorporated into actual discussions of US policy in Iraq. It's not as if we can decide willy-nilly that we are going to stay; even the United States needs permission to extend their visit (apparently Graham and McCain prefer that America become the worst house guest ever).

Moreover, keep US troops in Iraq past the December 31, 2011 deadline would have meant resolving what the New York Times called "an irreconcilable dispute" between the US and Iraq over the legal immunity of remaining troops. Without that immunity, those US soldiers would have been at the mercy of Iraq's legal system, a risk that the US military did not want to take; and for good reason. 

To be fair, this is a bit of a complicated issue and I suppose one can excuse Lindsay Graham for not fully understanding. It's not as if, for example, Lindsey Graham is a Judge Advocate General with the US Air Force, a position that would give an individual a unique insight and level of expertise about the various laws governing armed conflict and the status of US forces operating in foreign locales. 

Oh wait, as it turns out Lindsey Graham is a Judge Advocate General with the US Air Force and in 2007 he did his reserve duty in Iraq.

Beyond the legal issues involved in maintaining a US presence in Iraq, abrogating the status of forces agreement would be akin to undermining Iraq's nascent democracy, something which the 2007 version of Lindsay Graham thought was really, really important when he used it as a justification for surging 30,000 troops in Iraq:

We're going to stand with the forces of moderation, as imperfect as they are, and we're going to try to get this right by making up for past mistakes. We cannot have a democracy with militias roaming the country out of control. You can't have a democracy with 40 percent unemployment in Baghdad.

But apparently you can have a democracy when a foreign power violates their sovereignty and national will.

What is perhaps so maddening about this entire line of argument from the GOP that Obama has "failed" in Iraq is that it was Republicans like McCain and Graham who were the loudest advocates of the 2007 surge on the grounds that escalation would help a sovereign, democratic government (as well as political reconciliation) take root in Iraq. Now that we're seeing progress on that front and the Iraqi government feels sufficiently emboldened -- and more important accountable to their people -- that they are willing to stand up to the United States and demand US troops stay not a day longer Republicans are throwing a fit over it. Isn't this what the surge was supposed to bring; the surge they practically unanimously supported?

Republicans can't have this both ways: they can't on the one hand extol the virtues of democracy in Iraq and then get indignant when that country's democratically-elected government tells the United States they need to leave.

Actually let me rephrase that; Republicans like Graham can say whatever they want - even if their statements are completely contradictory. None of this means, however, that such criticisms should be taken seriously.

To be sure there are legitimate and substantive critiques to be made of the President's foreign policy performance (and ironically on Libya Tea Partiers who have argued that the war represents imperial overstretch and might actually be illegal is a relatively fair critique). But these aren't them. Rather these are nakedly partisan talking points masquerading as policy disputes. If there was ever any question that the GOP's fundamental critique of President Obama's foreign policy is basically "whatever he does we will argue the opposite" this past week should erase any doubts.

October 22, 2011

Tunisian Election By the Numbers
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

It'd be a shame if Tunisian elections for a body to write a new Constitution were overlooked; just nine months after the country's revolution ignited the Arab Spring, the vote looks set to go off smoothly and tell us quite a bit about the possibilities and limitations of progress around the Arab world.  Below, a few numbers that may surprise or enlighten:

Percentage unemployment, already high, has risen since the Revolution:  143%.

Position of employment in public concerns going into the election:  first.

Number of political parties competing: 110, plus coalitions and independent lists.

Number with candidates in all 33 districts:  four.

Proportion of candidates on each party list that must be female:  50%.

Number of rulers Tunisia had between independence in 1956 and the revolution in February 2011:  two.

How the leading Islamic party, Renaissance, is expected to perform:  25-30%.

What does it all mean?  The mandate of the new constituent assembly is unclear; does it name a new government, and if so, how quickly?  How long does it have to do its job?  How it answers these questions, and how well Tunisia's political parties, secular and religious, work together will tell much more than tomorrow's raw numbers.

October 20, 2011

Saving The Responsibility To Protect From Future Libya Wars
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Goldengun_0Spencer skewers the DC foreign policy commentariat:

1. Why Gadhafi's Death Vindicates "Leading From Behind" (Tom Friedman)

2. Gadhafi's Death Shows The U.S. Was Never Really "Leading From Behind" (Anne-Marie Slaughter)

3. There Is Still More To Do In Libya (Any Washington Post op-ed)

4. On To Damascus, Then Teheran (Weekly Standard)

5. Gadhafi's Death Shows The Post-Iraq Syndrome Is Over (TNR)

6. Whither The Obama Doctrine? (David Ignatius)

7. Saving The Responsibility To Protect From Future Libya Wars (Democracy Arsenal)

8. Slideshow: Bye, Bye Moammar (Foreign Policy)

9. Gadhafi's Death May Not Lead To Bump For Obama (Politico)

10. The Warplanes And Warships of Libya  (WIRED's Danger Room)

Photo: Getty Images via Passport

October 19, 2011

What's The Matter With Leon Panetta?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Leon_panettaThis past Friday, President Obama announced that he would be sending 100 combat equipped soldiers to Central Africa to help the governments of the region combat the Lord's Resistance Army, which is a particularly nasty and nihilistic terrorist organization that operates along the Ugandan border. It's a pretty straightforward intervention and one that is even codified in US law.

Yet here is what Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had to say about it in an interview with CBS News:

 Pelley: Did you have reason to believe that this part of Central Africa was becoming a haven for terrorism?

Panetta: There are elements there that either have ties to al Qaeda or that represent the forces of terrorism on their own. And that's what's dangerous.

Why Leon, why?

The United States is not sending troops to Central Africa to combat al Qaeda (at the very least that's not what the President of the United States told Congress about why he was sending troops to Central Africa). The al Qaeda presence in the region is at best, infinitesimal.  Going after the LRA with 100 non-combat US troops should be defensible on its merits without some silly Al Qaeda angle thrown into the mix. So why would Panetta make a comment like this?  It all has the odor of a transparent effort bolster the domestic case for military intervention by linking it somehow to terrorism and al Qaeda. 

In isolation this gaffe would not be a huge deal, but it fits a disturbing pattern of misstatements and overblown rhetoric from Panetta. Back in July in his first trip overseas as Secretary of Defense he said that the US was in Iraq because of al Qaeda and 9/11; he also pledged to keep 70,000 US troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014. The latter is in contradiction of US policy that was announced by President Obama only a month before and the former is in contradiction of the truth.

On the issue of keeping US troops in Iraq beyond the December 31, 2011 departure date Panetta has taken the odd approach of publicly negotiating with the Iraqi government in public - a surefire way to prevent any deal from actually occurring.

But it's on defense spending where Panetta has really gone off the deep end -- taking on maximalist, almost apocalyptic, positions including calling potential cuts "catastrophic," "draconian" "doomsday"-inducing and akin to America "shooting itself in the head."  This tracks with he said in August, when he wrote only days after the hard fought debt limit deal was signed that automatic cuts to the DoD budget "would undermine the military’s ability to protect America and its vital interests around the globe" and that such a move would "do real damage to our security." This is bizarre hyperbole, particularly sincePanetta hasn't identified a single way in which these cuts will "hollow" out the US military.

In fact, as Ben Armbruster pointed out recently when pushed to identify what risks would come from these reductions in current military spending (a fiscal outlay that far surpasses US spending during the Cold War) the best example that Panetta could point to was that the US presence in Latin America and Africa would have to be reduced. And why? Because according to Panetta the US would need to maintain a presence in the Middle East and the Far East.

It's funny that sounds a bit like "prioritizing" - no wonder it was so confusing to the head of the Defense Department.

In a speech last week at the Woodrow Wilson center Panetta offered a litany of "threats" that continue to face the United States, "terrorism, nuclear proliferation, rogue states,cyber attacks; revolutions in the Middle East, economic crisis in Europe, the rise of new powers like China and India."  It reads a bit like the Pentagon's current greatest hits.

According to Panetta, "all of these changes represent security, geopolitical, economic and demographic shifts in the international order that make the world more unpredictable, more volatile and, yes, more dangerous." That these words are practically identical to the ones spoken by Mitt Romney at the VFW convention in August are disturbing enough; that by any appreciable measure the world today is far less dangerous than any point in recent history only compounds the strategic incoherence of Panetta's statement.

I asked Bill Hartung, who is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy and a defense budget expert how he would rate the absurdity of these comments on a scale of 1 to 10 . . . his response was 12.  And Hartung should know - he served on the Sustainable Defense Task Force which outlined about one trillion dollars in defense cuts over ten years that would NOT turn the military into a hollow force.

If one wants to argue that defense cuts will be bad for US military preparedness and national security that's obviously an appropriate argument (even if it is, in my view, wrong). But Panetta has gone far beyond that, employing scare tactics, fear-mongering and apocalyptic warnings to make his argument. Worst of all by suggesting that its not defense spending that should be cut, but rather entitlement spending like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security he's basically siding with Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill and undercutting the President and Democrats in Congress who are currently negotiating with Republicans about additional cuts to the budget. 

It's not enough that Panetta is using inflammatory rhetoric to make his case for preserving the Pentagon's bloated budget; he's also feeding Republicans the attack lines they can use against Democrats if defense cuts do actually occur.

All of this seems at pace with a Sec Def who seems preternaturally focused on making sure everyone at the Pentagon likes him. Whatever one thinks of Robert Gates tenure at DoD he at least occasionally demonstrated the ability to speak some difficult truths to the military. Panetta, on the other hand, seems more inclined to offer chest thumping and flag-waving. 

As Spencer Ackerman devastatingly pointed out last week his recent speech to the AUSA convention was a pander-ific performance that glossed over the reality of austerity politics and pledged that significant cuts in the DoD budget will "not happen on my watch.”

And then there was this, "This nation needs an Army that can deter any potential aggressor — an expeditionary Army able to deploy to distant battlefields and, upon arrival, decisively overwhelm any enemy land force,” Panetta said. “And if an enemy does challenge us in a conventional land war, we need an Army that can, as General George Patton used to say, ‘Hold the [enemy] by the nose and kick them in the ass.’” To listen to Panetta talk about the the threats facing the United States, the importance of a big ass-kicking Army and the need "to make sure that rising powers understand that the United States still has a strong defense" you'd think that either Panetta has been asleep for the past ten years or Max Boot is now writing his speeches.

It is almost as if Panetta is so desirous of approval from the military brass that he is going out of his way to sound as tough as he possibly can. Indeed, when he was in Iraq over the summer even the Washington Post remarked on his "salty" language and occasionally martial tone with the troops.

I understand that a new Secretary of Defense wants to be respected in the building, but Panetta is taking this way too far - and trying way too hard.  

Of course there's another explanation for Panetta's obsequiousness - he is deeply inculcated by the notion that Dems are vulnerable on national security and they must do a good job of seeming "tough" enough to run the military. After all, who can forget this priceless Panetta quote captured in Bob Woodward's "Obama's Wars" about Obama'sfall 2009 review of Afghanistan policy:

He told other principals, "No Democratic President can go against military advice, especially if he asked for it." His own recommendation would be, "So just do it. Do what they say." He repeated to other key White House officials his belief that the matter should have been decided in a week.  

If one didn't know better (and there really is not much reason to suspect otherwise) Panetta is another in a long list of Democrats whose inclination is to approach national security issues through the narrow prism of domestic politics. His public statements sound like those of a Democrat too insecure to talk sensibly about the future of the US military and national security policy.

Panetta is the first Democrat to be Secretary of Defense in more than 14 years he should start behaving like it, rather than a caricature of how Democrats are supposed to act on foreign policy and national security. 

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