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October 18, 2011

Getting Obama Foreign Policy Wrong - Part II
Posted by David Shorr

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The theme this week is the various ways that our foreign policy wonk colleagues distort the Obama Administration's record to fit their own preconceived notions. Yesterday the culprit was Mark Lagon, as he championed the so-called "values agenda" of democracy promotion and human rights. Now we shift to the Realist end of the spectrum, beginning with a  World Politics Review piece by Nikolas Gvosdev. (You may need to go through RealClearWorld to read the whole thing.)

Like any self-respecting Realist, Nick judges foreign policy on the basis of America's geostrategic position: are we playing smart geopolitics, in terms of alignments and power balances and the current constelation of forces? He isn't nearly as harsh as Lagon in his assessment of Obama and does challenge the Republicans to do better. As a key to how Nick's view diverges from my own, the following passage caught my eye:

The U.S. presidential election could be an opportunity for the incumbent and challengers to present their contrasting visions of how the U.S. should prioritize its interests, commitments and partnerships. Last week, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney took a stab at doing just that when he identified the United Kingdom, Israel and Mexico as the key relationships that the U.S. needs to preserve and enhance. 

So for Gvosdev, you define your priorities through your relationships. I'm not so sure. For one thing, taking stock of what are considered key relationships doesn't tell you all that much about political or policy differences in our domestic debate. I didn't care much for the Romney speech, but if you asked me to name the countries with which the United States has the deepest affinity, I'd say the UK, Israel, and Japan. Then I'd quickly stress relations within North America, Canada as well as Mexico. On the question of the most consequential relationship: China. Most fraught and vexxed?  Pakistan. And my guess is that a wide political spectrum of foreign policy specialists would view those questions roughly the same way. Does that mean we have a latent consensus about strategic priorities?

But personally, I think a foreign policy defining characteristics are the ojectives toward which it is aimed and its 'theory of the case' for achieving them. Relationships with friends and frenemies are an ongoing matter of care and maintenance -- hardly simple or easy, but surely we expect foreign policy to steer nations' alignment and policy stances to build the kind of world we want to see. Or maybe this itself is an orientation. And part of Nick's column is quite fairminded at judging Obama foreign policy on its own terms. He wonders if the toxic political atmosphere: 

...will disincentivize any administration, whether a re-elected Obama team or a GOP replacement, from engaging in bold gambles. The Obama administration has taken a number of such gambles since 2009: that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev would become more powerful and secure a second term in the presidency; that China would be receptive to a G-2 dialogue; that a combination of sanctions and dialogue would jump-start negotiations to resolve the Iran nuclear standoff. None of these gambles has paid off as much as was hoped. The question now is, to what degree will a new administration in 2012 be willing to depart from Washington's "conventional wisdom"?

True enough, the administration has had to adjust its expectations in terms of progress with China and Iran. Even so, a fair reading of the record shows success in steadily moving the ball down the field, even if the earlier high hopes have been disappointed. (I've actually been working with a colleague to write an assessment at this level.)

Surely it's too harsh to definitively declare President Obama's policy "reactive, unfocused, and ineffective," which was the verdict of Jeremi Suri's New York Times op-ed last week. Like Gvosdev, Suri argues for prioritization and stresses that trying to do too much undermines the ability to do anything. And he goes the extra step of suggesting the correct priorities for foreign policy: bolstering the position of the dollar as the global currency, stemming the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and preserving good relations with China. 

What's really strange is that for all his disdain for Obama foreign policy, Suri's some of prescriptions are hard to distinguish from what the administration is already doing. For beginners, compare Suri's recommendation re China to Gvosdev's assessment. To which I'd add that the substance of dialogue between Beijing and Washington has been focused on administration priorities such as nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea and macroeconomic rebalancing -- which bear close resemblance Suri's two other priorities. 

For instance, I stare and stare at the following graf about the nuclear threat and cannot find anything that the Obama administration hasn't already been doing, and energetically so:

Securing facilities and supplies must receive high-level attention and funding, despite defense budget cuts. Supporting a rigorous international system that penalizes proliferators (especially Iran and North Korea) must dominate Washington’s activities in the United Nations and other international bodies. And the president must do more to build support for multilateral enforcement, including possible military action.

As to the position of the US dollar, I think Obama is absolutely right to be emphasizing economic growth globally, the same way he is domestically. Now it's true that Suri pins a lot of his argument to the need to put down some of the balls we're trying to keep in the air. But again, read Suri's prescription and tell me how different it is from the president's policy:

Washington no longer has the resources or the political mandate to act in ways that make a positive difference in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

October 17, 2011

How Critics of Obama Foreign Policy Get it Wrong
Posted by David Shorr

Medvedev Obama 2Now that President Obama's Republican have started to declare themselves on foreign policy, this has fired a starter's pistol for fellow wonks to draw their comparisons and critiques. I ran across three such pieces that dovetail especially well with one another -- each of the authors voicing different sets of concerns. And from these distinct angles, each also gives short shrift to the Obama administration. 

I'll start with Mark Lagon's World Affairs piece, because Mark is a [disclosure] good friend and also because I must deal with this pesky trope about  "declinism." The following passage at least gives a more sophisticated take -- putting it in the context of Mark's broader point about Obama abandoning the values agenda of democracy promotion -- but he's still drawing from the same Republican messaging memo:

That President Obama should have excluded it from his vision of America’s foreign policy assets—particularly in the key cases of Iran, Russia, and Egypt—suggests that he feels the country has so declined, not only in real power but in the power of example, that it lacks the moral authority to project soft power. In the 1970s, many also considered the US in decline as it grappled with counterinsurgency in faraway lands, a crisis due to economic stagnation, and reliance on foreign oil. Like Obama, Henry Kissinger tried to manage decline in what he saw as a multipolar world, dressing up prescriptions for policy as descriptions of immutable reality.

Wow, that's three declines in as many sentences, along with a quite deft way of couching the "apology" charge without quite saying it ("...lacks the moral authority..."). First, the issue isn't whether America has moral authority; we certainly do, and I doubt President Obama ever loses sight of that. The real question is how to leverage that moral authority. Should US foreign policy presume that the American example's unassailable power trumps any and all skepticism? For governments of some countries, questioning American motives is just a way to deflect pressure off of themselves, but that doesn't answer the question of whether moral authority can be overplayed? This isn't a debate about moral authority, but about smug self-satisfaction versus savvy self-awareness.

Which brings us to "prescriptions" and "descriptions." Without taking the bait on the Obama-as-Kissinger thing, it's fair to say that the argument for a self-aware policy is based on certain judgments about international political reality. Principally this: the presumption and constant assertion of US righteousness -- without any tempering or active effort to bolster US credibility -- just won't cut it in today's world. I don't know about "immutable," but yeah, I'd say it's a reality that if the United States to get things done, it must do more than stand tall and proud. It may feel good to keep beating the drum of American greatness, but real-world foreign policy effectiveness comes down to undercutting and outmaneuvering those who offer resistance, rather than expecting them to crumble in the face of our awesomeness. So then, what is the appropriate countercharge to "declinist?"  I can think of a couple: "out of touch," "delusional." ("Delusionist"?)

The other gap in Mark's lament about Obama's supposedly value-free policy is his cavalier attitude toward the other considerations of policy. Here's his explanation of how wrong Obama got his policy toward Russia:

Instead of establishing a foundation of clear principles in his reset of relations with the Putin regime, President Obama has seen relations with Russia in terms of a larger picture of strategic arms control. He believes proliferators like Iran and North Korea can be restrained if the major nuclear powers reduce their stockpiles, in fealty to the premises of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Hence, the New START Treaty was his singular focus with Russia and the grounds for his appeasement of Putinism. 

Yup, there's the "A" word, a reliable device that puts you squarely on the right side of history and makes you a political heir to Churchill. I guess Mark doesn't really think much of strategic arms control -- no biggie if the United States walked away from the decades of mutual strategic force limits and verification that the US has had with Russia and its Soviet predecessor. For my part, I am hugely grateful for what President Obama did in the December 2010 lame duck session, for yielding on a losing battle over the Bush-era tax cuts in order to make sure New START was ratified by the Senate. (Same goes for the end of Don't Ask Don't Tell.) 

In fact, I'm especially grateful on behalf of America's moral authority. Mark may not care, but a failure by the Senate to ratify New START would've been a MASSIVE black eye for our international reputation. Now, on the theory that friends can be frank with each other, that whole naive-about-restraining-Iran-and-North-Korea slam is one of the smarmiest around. As discussed above, the progressive concept of moral authority calls for the US to occasionally bulk up our own moral standing through steps like the nuclear disarmament that America promised under the NPT. Now I don't know anyone with views that resemble your caricature, but we do believe that New START makes it easier for the United States gain support in pressuring Iran. And conversely, its failure would only have made it harder. Whenever conservatives couch it this way, it lowers the level of the debate several notches.

Tomorrow I'll look at the critiques made from the perspective of a self-described Realist and someone worried about overstretch.

October 14, 2011

Sanctioning Iran
Posted by David Shorr

From reading the last couple days' coverage of the US and international response to the Iranian assassination plot, you can get a pretty good picture of the wide gulf that often separates American domestic politics from international politics -- and, putting it frankly, the disconnect between the right wing approach to foreign policy and the real world beyond our borders.

For the Obama administration, the plot not only is a chilling sign of the lengths to which Iran will go as a state sponsor of terror, it also bolsters the adminsitration's case for sustained international pressure on Tehran. They have been pressing the need to keep the heat on Iran with key countries like Russia and China ever since President Obama came into office and kicked into high diplomatic gear immediately after Attorney General Holder's announcement. For some in Congress, on the other hand, the point is to propose the toughest-looking possible response -- other nations be damned. 

The essence of the problem is captured in a single phrase from Helene Cooper's story in today's New York Times. After noting that President Obama held off from specifying reprisal steps on Thursday, she reported that:

his administration is considering a number of measures, but has limited leverage and would have to muster international support to impose anything with real teeth.

That's right, we can only really tighten the screws on Iran in tandem with other nations, rather than all on our own. If you really want to prod Iran to change course, it's crucial to build a unified international front. For a contrasting view, here's a quote House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) gave Helene Cooper and Mark Landler for their Wednesday Times story

“There are a lot of steps that we can immediately take that would serve as a wake-up call to the international community.”

First of all, I thought the assassination plot was the wake-up call. This sounds to me like Rep. Lehtinen sees the relationship between the US and these other nations as adversarial; she's drawing the dividing line in the wrong place. I certainly feel Russia, China, and others should take a firmer stance toward Iran -- though China did recently back out of an important energy infrastructure investment there, in an undernoticed move -- but being rashly confrontational with them isn't going to get their help in confronting Iran.

A Glass Abode
Posted by Eric Martin

BahrainAt a recent press conference with the President of South Korea, President Obama discussed the alleged plot by Iranian regime elements to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Obama then used that introduction to segue to Iran's hypocritical role in the Arab Spring.

Obama also pointedly accused Iran of being "hypocritical" in its reaction to the Arab Spring and predicted that other Middle Eastern countries will eventually punish Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"Iran has been hypocritical when dealing with the Arab Spring -- their ability to prop up the Syrian regime when they are killing their own citizens," Obama said.

Iran's hypocrisy in the present instance is based on its rhetorical support for pro-democracy movements on the one hand, and, on the other, its continued material support of the Syrian regime despite its brutal crackdown of just such a protest movement.

The Obama administration, on the other hand, would never offer rhetorical support for those seeking freedom, while supporting a regime in the region engaged in the violent suppression of a pro-democracy movement.

Because that would be hypocritical.

(photo credit: PressTV)

October 13, 2011

Where’s Romney? Trade, Especially With China
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Welcome to the second installment of DA’s exploration of where Mitt Romney stands on the foreign policy issues of the day. With Senate passage earlier this week of a bill to pressure China to appreciate its currency and the three long-awaited free trade agreements passing last night, trade is the issue d’jour. 

Romney has taken notice and begun calling out Chinese trade and currency practices and promising to do something about them “on day one,” if he is elected. Matt Yglesias has a good roundup of Romney’s proposals here. Those proposals focus mostly on the currency issue, which is just one part of U.S. trade disputes with China. Romney also has a video out today bashing President Obama for his supposed lack of action on protecting intellectual property from Chinese counterfeiters, and he’s giving a speech this afternoon in Redmond, Washington, home of Microsoft, presumably on that subject. 

So, according to Romney’s statements, he’s in favor or pressuring China on trade. When opportunities to do so have come up in practice though, his record says the opposite. According to the Club for Growth, a group which has as much stake as anyone in assuring a Romney victory: “In his recent book, Romney also voiced his opposition to President Bush’s steel tariff decision and President Obama’s decision to impose tariffs on foreign tires.” Bush 43’s steel tariff decision affected a number of countries, but was mainly aimed at China. Obama’s tire tariffs called out China directly.

In addition, as AFP’s Oliver Knox notes here and here, Romney today announced Carlos Gutierrez, who was Bush's Secretary of Commerce from 2005 to 2009, as part of his trade advisory team. But as Knox notes: “as commerce secretary, Gutierrez lobbied against a far weaker version of the China currency bill Romney now supports.”

As for intellectual property, Romney brings up an important issue. The Obama administration has frequently confronted Chinese officials in bilateral and multilateral fora, calling for greater protection. But as CFR’s Adam Segal points out, enforcement is and would be tough for any president.

Two questions flow from this: If Romney claims to back action against unfair Chinese trade and currency practices, why hasn’t that support shown in the form of endorsing concrete measures taken by members of both parties against such practices. Also, why don't his advisors back his stated positions? Secondly, on the specific issue of intellectual property protection, what direct action does Romney propose taking against China to stop theft?

October 12, 2011

Hey Republican Candidates, How About Some Foreign Policy Substance?
Posted by David Shorr

6035594172_a1f8c02163As I weighed how to respond to the emerging GOP foreign policy campaign themes and Mitt Romney's big speech, I was torn between my partisan self and my bipartisan self. In the end, I thought both should have a chance to comment. The high-minded bipartisan on my one shoulder will constructively lay out some issues about which next year's two nominees could constructively contend. And then the snarky partisan on the other shoulder will swiftly and snarkily demolish the superficial nonsense on offer from the Republicans until they come up with better. [Note: I give somewhat of a pass to Jon Huntsman's big speech, giving it points for some solid themes, delving instead of skimming some issues, offering bona fide substance on one or two -- though lapsing into the same trite platitudes on others.] First, a few topics that could actually draw some substantive light and not just rancorous heat. 

Arab "Spring" and Values-Based Policy Our Republican friends are having a grand old time slamming the supposed fecklessness of Obama foreign policy. "Responding to events instead of leading, blah, blah, blah." Here's the proposition for a real debate: the administration has deliberately used a case-by-case approach and taken pains not to get too far ahead of events in ways and with consequences it would later regret; so what's the alternative and how would it lead to better outcomes?  Can you give us a set of policy guidelines or rules that deal squarely with all of the situations -- from Egypt to Libya to Bahrain to Syria? If you lean to the side of stability, could your administration have kept Mubarak in power, and at what cost to American credibility and moral authority (asks our old friend Shadi Hamid)? And if you're more of a principled democracy spreader, how will you keep debates about these situations from being steadily cranked up by our own Eric Martin's brilliant (and patented) Regime Change Ratchet?  Or maybe you believe in regime changing all over the place.

Libya and Humanitarian Intervention Speaking of regime change, I notice that some of you have been fulminating about using military force only in cases of clear national interest. Sometimes this has been wrapped together with some strange notion about "liberals only using force on behalf of one-world international community interest, instead of the national interest, blah, blah, blah."  To which I can only respond: Osama bin Laden.  (Oops, I'm getting snarky here in what's supposed to be the high-minded part.)   Now where was I... Humanitarian intervention, right. An honest critique of the Libya intervention would have to coldly and forthrightly argue against intervening to save lives when we can. And where would this leave the post-Holocaust idea of "never again?"  Oh, and it's a cheat to argue that intervention in one place such as Libya implies an obligation to intervene in a lot of other places -- a cheat or a rather truncated debate. If the critique is that it took too long to go in, I'd respond that it was a damn sight faster than most any other such case you can name.

Afghanistan and Nation Building (In which I tread carefully on turf whether other DAers like Michael Cohen and Jacob Stokes are much more expert.) This is one of the issues on which Gov. Huntsman scores pretty high on the substance-o-meter -- making a clear delineation between counterinsurgency and counterterror and arguing for pulling out sooner rather than later. My substance challenge is for Republicans on the "later" side of that question. What differences do you see between considering America's military engagement in Afghanistan in, say, Years 1 or 2 versus Year 11? At this point, can't we find a way out; isn't it only reasonable after so many years? Also, I've always wanted to ask about this talking point of "when we tell the enemy the time of our withdrawal, all they have to do is wait us out, yadda, yadda, yadda."  Um, can't they wait us out regardless; after all, isn't it their country?  

And here's an interesting related note from my recent visit to Israel, a link between the war in Afghanistan and America's military support for Israel. In our briefings about security assistance from the US, there was one small category of items (unspecified) that the Israeli's have asked for and been declined: stuff that the US military needs in theater. I just thought that was a fascinating snapshot of overstretch.

Phew, all that constructive reaching across the aisle took a lot of restraint. But putting snark and irony aside for a moment, I truly had hoped we'd be having a more mature and less rancorous debate -- that the experience of Iraq and Cheneyism had been chastening for Republicans. If anyone were to look back at the Bridging the Foreign Policy Divide book from 2007, you'd see what I mean.  Meanwhile, Michael captures the main point at the end of his excellent Foreign Policy piece (read the whole thing):

Rather than a robust national debate about the nature of U.S. power or American national security interests in an increasingly post-"war on terror" world, if Romney's remarks Friday are any indication, campaign 2012 is likely to focus on the issue it all too often does -- who's tougher.

Now it's my inner partisan's turn. He's going to parrot back how the opposition's critique of Obama foreign policy sounds to him. It's somewhat of a caricature, but not much. My inner bipartisan will keep waiting and wishing for more substance from the GOP, but until then, I'll probably keep offering variations on the following themes:

Obviously President Obama doesn't really believe in American narcissism exceptionalism, or he wouldn't be running around apologizing for America. Oh, don't pester me about actual times when he has apologized. You know what Obama's like, with all that apologetic-ness of his. Look, anyone who cares what other countries think is apologizing.

They try to make it seem complicated in the Harvard faculty lounges, but foreign policy is really quite simple. There are three kinds of people in this world: people doing things America doesn't like, people who should agree with America, and Americans. So all the president needs to do in foreign policy is to be more resolute, uncompromising, unwavering, resolute, and insistent. More like we really mean it. Winston Churchill was resolute and morally clear; Republicans are just like him.

President Obama is so apologetic -- with all his concern about America's international standing and moral authority -- that he thinks diplomacy is about pressure and persuasion when it's really about bluff and bluster. Of course America has moral authority; we're America, damn it. Obama isn't leading. If he were leading, then he'd be telling the rest of the world to get with the program, rather than worrying about whether they'll vote for the next round of UN sanctions on Iran or help clamp down with their own unilateral sanctions. As the great foreign policy expert Donald Trump says, it's time to tell OPEC that their fun is over.

And don't forget, it's really George W. Bush we have to thank for killing Osama bin Laden. 

Or do I exaggerate?

Photo credit: IowaPolitics.com

Ignoring the Foundations of Power
Posted by Jacob Stokes

James Traub has an interesting piece in FP on how the conservatives running for president haven't thought much about foreign policy. The piece is worth reading, as it nicely pulls together many of the threads those who watch these issues have been observing for a while.

One particularly interesting piece is Traub's discussion of the realignment on foreign policy among different factions of the Party:

The dispute speaks to a striking realignment within the Republican Party's ranks. The Republican establishment has long been defined by non-ideological moderates and "realists" like Brent Scowcroft, Richard Armitage, and Richard Haass. These are the figures, associated more with the first than the second President Bush, whom Huntsman has been consulting and whose views he largely represents. And yet he, and they, are now considered beyond the pale. A new conservative elite has by now almost wholly supplanted the graybeards within the GOP's ranks, and has gravitated to Romney and Perry. The graybeards support the New START nuclear arms deal with Russia negotiated by Obama and ratified this year; the GOP candidates and most of their advisors do not. The old elite supports engagement with China; the new ones regard China as a military threat. In short, today's conservatives see the world as fundamentally more threatening than do the old-school pragmatists... In effect, then, the old center of the GOP has joined with the new radicals of the Tea Party in advocating a policy of Less.

To me, one important aspect of this split is how the new conservative elite essentially writes off the connection between economic strength and national security. That connection has quickly become so clear and generally accepted that it's become a cliche. The new conservative elite pays lip service to this ideal, but then promptly advises a more expensive foreign policy, both in terms of hardware and in terms of tactics (extended COIN, for example). Anything less, in their mind, is "isolationism."

While one might -- and I would -- disagree with the Tea Party's and the traditional GOP's ideas about how to grow the economy, those two groups at least take seriously the connection between the two sectors of our national life.

October 11, 2011

Interagency Cooperation on Assassination Plot Investigation
Posted by James Lamond

Everyone has by now heard the news about the attempted assassination plot on U.S. soil. There are many questions that do not have clear answers – including what was Iran thinking? But certainly towards the top of the list is why some in Congress are trying to do away with the very tools that disrupted this plot?

Juliette Kayyem, who before her role at Harvard was Assistant Secretary at DHS, writes today that: 

I have been in government long enough to say almost nothing about an unfolding case. I have a lot of confidence in Holder's team but unless or until you know the evidence, better to be quiet. But an irony that cannot be ignored is this: As our strongest law enforcement agency was using investigative techniques, the judicial system and good old fashion rule of law, Congress was at the same exact time considering controversial detainee provisions in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act that would - yes, the irony is deep – remove civilian courts and law enforcement from most counterterrorism efforts.

As I wrote about last week, and NSN put out today, there are ongoing efforts in Congress that would essentially remove any civilian role in terrorism arrest, interrogation and prosecution. This includes agencies like the FBI and the DEA, who as we saw today are some of our best tools against terrorism. According to reports, the disruption of this plot appears to be the result of effective interagency, and international, cooperation at many different levels. The Department of Justice’s press release outlines th degree of cooperation: 

This investigation is being conducted by the FBI Houston Division and DEA Houston Division, with assistance from the FBI New York Joint Terrorism Task Force.  The prosecution is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Glen Kopp and Edward Kim, of the Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, with assistance from the Counterterrorism Section of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. The Office of International Affairs of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and the U.S. State Department provided substantial assistance.  We thank the government of Mexico for its close coordination and collaboration in this matter, and for its role in ensuring that the defendant was safely apprehended.

Where’s Romney? Afghanistan Edition
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Afghanistan for RomneyAs Mitt Romney continues his journey to the front of the GOP field, I thought I’d start a little feature here at DA that looks at Romney’s position on different issues in depth. Today’s pick: Afghanistan. Dan Balz has a great first look at this issue over at the Post.

Romney’s central criticism of the president’s policy on Afghanistan is his failure to “listen to the generals” before making the call last July to withdraw the 33,000 “surge” troops by the end of 2012. (Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that such criticism is misguided.) Romney suggested in his speech last week that, “I will order a full review of our transition to the Afghan military to secure that nation’s sovereignty from the tyranny of the Taliban. I will speak with our generals in the field and receive the best recommendation of our military commanders. The force level necessary to secure our gains and complete our mission successfully is a decision I will make free from politics.”

That quote suggests that Romney would ask the generals what they need and simply order what the generals say is needed. Such a criticism would, in his mind, be “free from politics.”

But as Balz points out, Romney has also suggested that troop commitments are ultimately the president’s decision. He said, “I would listen to the generals and receive the input of those who are the commanders in the field, and then I would make my own decision.” In other words, he’d do what Obama did.

In addition to the flip-flop here, Romney also has a couple other issues to contend with. Most of the news coverage assumes that Romney’s review would come to the conclusion that some level of troop drawdown was warranted. But if Romney ordered a review, it’s not out of the question that he’d get a request for increased resources to complete the mission. No military commander has ever asked for fewer resources to complete a mission. So the question should really be: Would Romney consider more troops to help achieve the mission in Afghanistan?

After all, the resources needed to complete the mission depend on how it’s defined. Romney, in his speech last week, seemed to define the mission as preventing the Taliban from gaining any political power in Afghanistan, a much more expansive mission than has been set out by the Obama administration, which has made a point of delineating between the Taliban and al Qaeda. He said, “After the United States and NATO have withdrawn all forces, will the Taliban find a path back to power? After over a decade of American sacrifice in treasure and blood, will the country sink back into the medieval terrors of fundamentalist rule and the mullahs again open a sanctuary for terrorists?”

In addition to the question of troop commitments, Romney has failed to address the much larger issue on Afghanistan: How to create a functioning government. Especially in light of the news today that the Afghan government has been engaged in systemic abuse and torture of prisoners, figuring out how to create a reliable partner government is arguably just as, if not more, important than achieving military victory over the Taliban.

At bottom, Romney wants all the political upside of this issue – Listen to the generals! Defeat our enemies! – without any of the political downside – more troops, more money, grim chances of success as he defines it. The voters deserve a chance to weigh the pros and cons of Romney’s position against President Obama’s. Will they get that chance?

Photo: IAVA Flickr

October 10, 2011

Some Thoughts After Hearing Huntsman and Romney
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

First, kudos to my colleagues on that side of the aisle -- especially Team Huntsman -- for turning out substantive speeches that one can actually think and argue about.  such a nice change from the debates.  (Shhh, don't tell anyone I said so.)  However, I drew three over-arching conclusions and they aren't particularly cheery:

1.  There are no conservative ideas about foreign policy since Ronald Reagan that it is safe for conservative candidates to reference in public.  So you get "peace through strength" over and over.  How is "strength" different now from 1982?
2.  No one in American public life yet has an explanation to Americans of how what happens abroad affects our lives at home -- or could help us out of the slump we're in -- that they have confidence in.
3.  No one running for President thinks Americans vote on foreign policy.  These speeches are concocted to play to grander notions of strength that do seep down into the voting public, and then to niche audiences, whether those niche audiences are ethnic groups (Huntsman and Indian-Americans) , specific industries and regions (Romney and ship-building), wings of the party (the Iran war lobby) or editorial writers and national media looking for "seriousness."

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