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January 30, 2012

Seriously, What's The Matter with Leon Panetta?
Posted by Michael Cohen

U8_Leon-Panetta-2On several occasions here at DA I've raised the issue of Leon Panetta's performance as Secretary of Defense - and it seems that the man is intent on giving me even more ammunition to question his very effectiveness as Pentagon chief.

Consider his latest head-scratcher: an interview with CBS News in which he suggested a) that the Pakistani government might have known about Osama bin Laden's presence in Abbotabad and b) he confirmed that Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor, worked with the United States in its efforts to kill bin Laden.Considering that Afridi is at risk of being tried in Pakistan for "high treason" this strikes me as a decidedly unhelpful statement not only for Mr. Afridi but also for any hopes the US might have in getting foreign citizens to work with US intelligence agencies in the future.

Now I'm willing to entertain the possibility that Panetta made this reveal as a way to heighten Afridi's profile and lessen the chance that Pakistan prosecutes him. Not sure how that would work but I have to consider the possibility that there is a method behind Panetta's madness - because if there isn't he just publicly sold out a person who bravely put themselves harm's way to help the United States.

As for publicly alleging that unnamed individuals in Pakistan were aware of Bin Laden's location . . . I've given up trying to figure out what Panetta is thinking. Seriously, how does this in anyway help the United States and in particular its relationship with Pakistan? Why even go there? Shouldn't the main thrust of US policy in the region to strengthen the US relationship with Islamabad not re-open old wounds. Indeed, the worst part about Panetta's statement is that he offers no evidence of Pakistani support for OBL just idle speculation.

Here's what he said: "I don’t have any hard evidence, so I can’t say it for a fact. There’s nothing that proves the case. But as I said, my personal view is that somebody, somewhere probably had that knowledge." 

If you don't have any hard evidence Leon why would you say this? 

The Pentagon's defense of Panetta's latest gaffe is that this interview came several months ago. Guess what: that's not a defense! It was a stupid comment in January 2012; it's also a stupid comment in October, November and December 2011. Of course this isn't the first time that Panetta has made a comment that forced the Pentagon to "clarify" his remarks. Indeed, it has become a regular occurrence.

You would think that someone who has been in Washington as long as Panetta would know enough not to make these sorts of public "comments." Of course, as long as he continues to stick his foot in his mouth I'll have plenty of fodder for DA posts . . . but the impact on US foreign policy is perhaps a bit less of a good thing.

Making Foreign Policy an Issue
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Red_phoneRich Fontaine argues on Tom Ricks’s blog that foreign policy will matter it the election. After the usual disclaimers about how economic issues will be front and center, Fontaine writes:

This does not mean, however, that voters will not consider foreign policy as they enter the voting booth. Both eventual candidates, the incumbent president included, will have to demonstrate to the electorate that they pass the commander-in-chief credibility threshold.  They must demonstrate that they have the knowledge, the temperament, the skills and the wisdom to lead a superpower in times of both peril and plenty. If they can cross this threshold, they will still have to make a winning case on domestic issues. If they cannot, no amount of focus on the American pocketbook will salvage their chances. Foreign policy will matter in 2012.

Fontaine is probably too unequivocal when he says no amount of focus on economic issues can outperform the commander-in-chief factor. But his main point, that national security will surely matter, stands. 

The Obama campaign thinks so, too, writes Michael Hirsh in the National Journal. Hirsh reports that the campaign plans to present Obama as the toughest national security president since Kennedy – what’s called the “3 AM strategy,” which of course refers to the crisis situations each president will inevitably confront. Clearly Obama campaign staffers have been reading their Nate Silver.

Hirsh’s piece goes through the huge amount of evidence and public support Obama has on his side when it comes to national security. For that, read the piece. It’s well worth it. The piece includes a quote from Michael Lagon, a former George W. Bush administration official, saying Obama is, in some ways, more sure-footed than the elder Bush. 

Hirsh’s encapsulation of the campaign’s argument against his opponents is telling as well: 

Meanwhile, the administration has been busy preparing a bill of particulars against Romney (and now one against Gingrich). “Romney has said he would have left tens of thousands of troops in Iraq indefinitely, with no plan for what they would do there or how he would end the war,” says the Obama campaign official, who delivers a kind of rap sheet: Romney has failed to outline a plan for ending the war in Afghanistan and flip-flopped on setting a timetable for withdrawal. He said it wasn’t worth “moving heaven and earth” to catch bin Laden and criticized Obama for making it clear he would take out Qaida targets in Pakistan. He flip-flopped on removing Qaddafi, first attacking Obama for demanding regime change and then celebrating it. He has proposed to drastically increase military spending without articulating how it would improve security or how to pay for it. Meanwhile, a Democratic campaign official points out that Gingrich has a history of making erratic statements about national security and once told The Times, “I don’t do foreign policy.”

Romney has gone to great lengths to establish himself as the national security candidate among the GOP field and make foreign policy a wedge issue, including giving two big speeches on the subject (for DA’s take, see here and here).

There’s a fight a-brewin’.


Iran Takes Over... the Media
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Kudos to US and international media and my analyst friends -- we have lots and lots and lots of good reporting and analysis on the Iran situation this morning.  An embarrasse des riches, as Mitt Romney might say. I'm organizing my thoughts for an Iran panel on the Hill at 1230 today, and I thought I'd share.


Three heavyweight Israelis lay out the full range of strategic considerations to be debated:

  • are Iranian nukes an existential threat to Israel
  • can a nuclear Iran be deterred
  • What would the regional and inside-Iran consequences of an Israeli attack be
  • what are the long-term security consequences of Israel launching an attack against US wishes

The Pentagon doesn't think its current bunker-buster bombs will do the trick against Iran's defenses, and has asked for heavier weapons to be developed urgently. (Wall Street Journal)


Iran's Foreign Minister invites IAEA inspectors to extend their visit... at same time as Iran's military tests new delivery systems.

Israeli intel journalist (and author of this weekend's NY Times Mag piece predicting Israel will bomb) seems to reverse himself by suggesting to Laura Rozen that Israel is asking the West to hold it back.

The Economist says China will choose regional stability over its relations with Iran.

Beltway Strategery

Les Gelb says Obama should bite the bullet and officially offer the peaceful-enrichment-for-full-inspections-and-safeguards deal.

Sara Sorcher at National Journal reports that Senate leadership says they want to move another round of sanctions -- this one targeted at Revolutionary Guard, human rights violators, crowd control equipment... also a proposal to deny entry to US ports to any ship that has visited Iran in last 180 days.

The New Yorker's Steve Coll reads the tea leaves, says that war is not imminent, and that a strategy of "patience and persistence" should be kept on the table. 

what does all this add up to? A lot of posturing for domestic and international audiences... some progress toward the foundations of a negotiated outcome... consensus among experts and the business community, but emphatically not among political factions here or elsewhere, on what an acceptable negotiated outcome would look like... and some big opportunities for miscalculation and unintended escalation.

January 27, 2012

Reacting to Robert Kagan on American Decline
Posted by David Shorr

Now that the White House and President Obama himself (thanks Josh Rogin) have given Bob Kagan a heaping helping of buzz for his New Republic piece, I want to offer a few thoughts. First off, the cheesy partisan debate over perceived decline has been bugging me for a long time, so kudos to Bob for helping spur a more substantive discussion. (Take a look at Dan Drezner and Stephen Walt to see what Bob was drawing on.)

As indicated by President Obama's warm endorsement, Kagan lays the ground for a bipartisan internationalist consensus. Responding to calls for the US to pull back from our role as a global power -- often couched in terms of being financially unaffordable -- he rightly asks about the costs of such a pullback itself. It's worth quoting at length:

If the decline of American military power produced an unraveling of the international economic order that American power has helped sustain; if trade routes and waterways ceased to be as secure, because the U.S. Navy was no longer able to defend them; if regional wars broke out among great powers because they were no longer constrained by the American superpower; if American allies were attacked because the United States appeared unable to come to their defense; if the generally free and open nature of the international system became less so—if all this came to pass, there would be measurable costs. And it is not too far-fetched to imagine that these costs would be far greater than the savings gained by cutting the defense and foreign aid budgets by $100 billion a year. You can save money by buying a used car without a warranty and without certain safety features, but what happens when you get into an accident?

American power indeed plays a constructive hegemonic function in undergirding the international economic and political order. We have the job and giving it up would be a dereliction and likely come to grief. I would stress one amendment, however. The more successfully we are at gaining international support and cooperation, the more we'll be able to buttress the international system and share the associated burdens. Indeed, that's the strategy behind President Obama's emphasis on shared international obligations and responsibilities. 

I'd like to focus on one other passage of the Kagan piece, and it's a point he, Drezner, and Walt all dwell on. Bob offers a response to the perception that "the United States can no longer shape the world to suit its interests and ideals as it once did." Confession time: I have harped on this exact challenge pretty regularly. Again, let me quote Bob at length: 

And of course it is true that the United States is not able to get what it wants much of the time. But then it never could. Much of today’s impressions about declining American influence are based on a nostalgic fallacy: that there was once a time when the United States could shape the whole world to suit its desires, and could get other nations to do what it wanted them to do, and, as the political scientist Stephen M. Walt put it, “manage the politics, economics and security arrangements for nearly the entire globe.”

He then proceeds to list the many aggravating episodes of the Cold War when other international players defied America's wishes. It's an impressive list, yet one of the examples didn't seem quite right. In 1956, France, Israel, and the UK invaded Egypt against President Eisenhower's wishes to seize control of the Suez Canal. And then were forced to withdraw. So can't we make the opposite interpretation that the crisis' outcome reinforced American influence? Was Eisenhower's influence eroded or enhanced by the episode?

I do understand Bob's warning not to consider these challenges to be 'new under the sun.' Even if we consider the problem of influencing other actors and steering events to be a hardy perennial, however, doesn't it still seem like the salient underlying challenge for foreign policy at the present moment? Can it be argued that the difficulty of exerting influence needs to be kept in mind, and is too often underestimated?

And this is where I have to play mood-killer to all this good bipartisan comity. Because I see a major gap between Kagan's sober reminder that world events don't yield so easily to America's control, and Republican talking point after talking point argument after argument that assume the opposite.

January 26, 2012

Get Real on Cuba
Posted by The Editors

CastrosThis post by NSN intern Ian Byrne.

During Monday night’s GOP debate in Florida, Brian Williams asked Mitt Romney what he would do as president if he received a 3 AM phone call reporting that Fidel Castro had died and “half a million Cubans may take that as a cue to come to the United States.”

Romney started with a hypothetical “thank heavens that Fidel Castro has returned to his maker and will be sent to another land,” before offering up his policy prescriptions: “Now, number two, you work very aggressively with the new leadership in Cuba to try and move them towards a more open degree than they have had in the past.”

Sorry Mitt, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Fidel’s brother Raúl is in charge of Cuba’s leadership now and will be in charge of Cuba’s leadership after Castro’s death.

Newt followed with his idea of a “Cuban Spring”:

“I would suggest to you the policy of the United States should be aggressively to overthrow the regime and to do everything we can to support those Cubans who want freedom. You know, Obama is very infatuated with an Arab Spring. He doesn't seem to be able to look 90 miles south of the United States to have a Cuban Spring.”

Romney and Gingrich doubled down on their criticism of the Obama administration’s policies and calls for regime change on Wednesday. Romney remarked that President Obama “does not understand that by helping Castro; he is not helping the people of Cuba; he is hurting them.” Gingrich lamented that the Obama administration’s policy is "almost exactly the opposite" of what it should be.

The Obama administration’s new policies aren’t all that new, as Arturo Lopez-Levy notes in Foreign Policy:

“Obama's new policy restores the "people-to-people" contacts between the United States and Cuba that existed under Bill Clinton's administration, restoring the embargo exemptions for Americans traveling for humanitarian, religious, and academic purposes that were disallowed under Bush. More direct flights to the island -- albeit chartered ones -- will be allowed, and Americans now can transfer remittances of up to $500 per quarter, as long as they aren't going to the Cuban government or Communist Party.”

(A full fact sheet of the policy revisions can be found here.)

I’d challenge Romney to highlight how the administration’s policies directly help Castro and hurt the Cuban people. Wouldn’t hurt to ask how the trade embargo benefits the people either. If Gingrich asserts that the administration’s policy is all wrong, what can he offer besides drawing policy inspiration from Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher in leading up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, besides the film that has any and all a conservative has ever wanted?

Romney and Gingrich offer ambiguous and tired (see: neoconservative) policy options where “might makes right.” If Gingrich believes we can look 90 miles south “to have a Cuban Spring” he has failed all duties of being a historian or a scholar.

The Arab Spring was unique in that it was, well, Arab. Cuba is not the Middle East (I can’t believe I actually have to write that) and each possess different dynamics on the ground. I imagine the people of Cuba, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria all have the same yearning for freedom. But as we’ve seen in the Middle East and North Africa, each process is going to be different getting from point A to point B.

The administration’s current policies appreciate the limitations of what can be done. Lifting the trade embargo would require congressional approval and any Washington-Havana communication is out of the question as diplomatic relations are nonexistent.

Our decades long policy of isolation towards Cuba has failed. The guy in charge of Cuba’s last name is still Castro. If one wants to change U.S. policy, as the candidates seem so intent on doing, perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from our recent policy towards Burma.

Anya Landau French, a Cuba policy analyst, writes that by enacting sanctions that expired within a defined period of time, the U.S. offered incentives to the Burmese government which planted the seeds for reform. Case in point: Washington will soon have a Burmese ambassador

Indefinite sanctions offer Cuba no incentive to reform. I imagine that Cuba sees little incentive in the prospect of being “aggressively overthrown” as well.

President Obama’s “people-to-people” policies circumvent the Cuban government and are able to operate in the constricted environment where U.S.-Cuba policy exists. If we are proposing new policy, let us take a page from the Burma playbook. If the GOP candidates want the Cuban people to truly experience freedom, perhaps they should propose something a little more groundbreaking than continuing the trade embargo. 

Einstein said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It has been a rather kooky 54 years.

Photo: AP via MSNBC

January 24, 2012

Mitch Daniels preview*
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

So rumors are flying around the interwebs that Mitch Daniels' response to the State of the Union is "partisan and nasty." That'll be funny, given Daniels' record on the national security issues that bookend the speech:

Eight months ago, the Post's Jennifer Rubin found his conservatism wanting:

On foreign policy, he said that he’s a “water’s edge” kind of guy. He is sure that the President is in a position to know a lot more about what’s needed in Afghanistan than he is. He said he didn’t think Obama had “made the case” for the Libya intervention, though this doesn’t mean there is no case. Pressed to say something critical about Obama’s foreign policy, he said that he was “uncomfortable” with the President’s “apology tours.” But he didn’t look comfortable saying it.

Jamie Rubin asked him a clever question, right out of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”: if he had just one phone call to make about some foreign policy issue and he could call either Richard Lugar or John McCain, which would it be? After a little hemming and hawing, he said that he is “always comfortable” talking with Lugar...That’d be strike three. Relying on the Senate Republican most despised by the conservative base (who’s sure to be primaried) and who has run interference for President Obama on foreign policy issues such as START and a Russian reset will set alarm bells ringing on the right. If personnel is policy, then a Daniels administration would seem to be to the left of George H.W. Bush.

Will he like Obama's call for tougher trade enforcement?  As governor, he signed $350 million of trade deals with China, but the Washington Post reports that his forthcoming book foresees a "horror movie-like" war scenario with China, in which China cuts off financing and chaos ensues in the US -- then, as a bonus, China invades Taiwan.

The same chapter agonizes about how we are now "borrowing our entire defense budget from China." Will he support the president's pledge to cut half a billion dollars from the defense budget?

Finally, Daniels - who has Syrian heritage (yeah, bet you'd forgotten that) - accepted an award from the Arab-American Institute last year and spoke movingly about his support for the Arab Spring:

Now I am so proud that brave Syrians have stepped forward, as their Egyptian and Tunisian and other counterparts have — and against, apparently, brutal threats and repressions — have stood up for the right to dream.

At the timel, conservatives called him to task for expressing too much sympathy for the Arab cause, with some alleging that he might be, by their lights, insufficiently pro-Israel. Will he disagree with the similar sentiments Obama expresses in tonight's State of the Union?

Should be fun.

*With thanks to NSN's superstar intern Ian Byrne for researching this post.

The Incredible GOP Flying Circus
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Last night in Florida, again we saw the GOP candidates for president advocate foreign policies that defy facts, Americans’ wallets and top security experts.

Fact defying: The candidates’ unchallenged misstatements included a US-Israeli joint exercise which Israel’s defense minister has said he, not the U.S., cancelled; misleading comparisons of the 2012 and 1917 US Navies that previously earned a “pants on fire” rating from nonpartisan Politifact; and an apparent lack of awareness that Fidel Castro has transferred many powers to his brother Raul and others, and experts generally don’t expect a mass exodus on his death.

Security-defying: Perhaps more surprising was the candidates’ hurry to call for using all means necessary to effect regime change in Cuba and – counter to advice from military and political leaders – in Iran; and to go against the advice of top commanders and stop talks with the Taliban.

If the rhetoric sounds familiar, there’s a reason. Each of the top three contenders’ camps is filled with architects of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld Iraq War approach – people like John Bolton and Dan Senor.

Lacking leadership: The test of a president is whether he will be a commander or a manager; a buck-stops-here decision-maker or a follower of ideologues. The candidates’ eagerness to “listen to the military” has drawn critiques from top military leaders like Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey who calls total deference to the military ‘offensive.’ Last night, though, the candidates took positions from war with Iran to expanded Navy shipbuilding that the military in fact does not support. With an incumbent who has taken the tough decisions to use force and to talk to our adversaries, Americans have the right to expect more about how an alternate path would work.

January 23, 2012

SOTU dreaming on a winter's day
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Imagine if the state of the union began:

“My fellow Americans, the state of our bailed-out auto industry is strong – in fact, sales of American cars overseas is driving private-sector job creation here at home, and General Motors passed Toyota last year to become again the world’s largest automaker.”

Or this:

“My fellow Americans, one thing we can agree on, from Wall Street to Occupy Wall Street, is that we need a healthy banking sector lending money to large and small business to fuel our recovery.  And our banks are closely linked to Europe’s banks.  This year, one of the top three things I will do to keep our recovery going is to make sure that our European friends get their act together and right their banking sector – with our help if necessary. For 45 years of Cold War Americans and Europeans stood together knowing that a war that started in Central Europe would not end there.  What was true of our values then is true of our prosperity today.

Or this:

Sitting next to my wife Michelle tonight is Gene Sharp.  Most Americans have probably never heard of him, but his work on non-violent change, in the great American tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, has made him well-known among the Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni and Syrian [and, if I really get going into dreamland, Bahraini] citizens who risked their lives to demand freedom and dignity. His lifetime commitment to helping others claim for themselves freedoms we too often take for granted is something of which every American can be proud – and by which every one of us can be inspired to again make our country all that it can be.

TB resistant to every antibiotic now existing could enter the US on a flight from India any day. The way to fight it is the same way we’ve controlled smallpox and polio in the past, and H1N1 and other diseases today – combining the funds and expertise of our Centers for Disease Control with the funds and expertise of the World Health Organization, Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria and other international health organizations that can bring the fight where the disease is – before it ever lands in the US.

What do all these dreamy paragraphs have in common?  They situate the Obama Administration’s considerable foreign policy and national security achievements in Americans’ daily reality.  They also do the same for the sharpest national security disagreements buried in the campaign rhetoric:

Why do we talk to our enemies? Because that’s how you get things done, in a fine tradition from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan.

Why should we include our military budget in financial sacrifice? Because investments that safeguard Americans’ security and prosperity are critically-needed in economic growth, health and education.

Why does an America that walks its talk, even on hard issues like giving fair trials to people suspected of repugnant terror crimes, matter?  Why is the Golden Rule a vital source of our strength rather than an outmoded cliché? Because in a global media age, the world can see us talking and walking, and it’s those images that matter, whether it’s democracy activists in Tunisia, the mother of a Nigerian terrorist convincing her son to cooperate with law enforcement, an Al Jazeera correspondent who says she’d rather face a US court than an Iranian one, or Afghan villagers who must make a split-second decision about whether to help or harm US soldiers they encounter.

Taking a few steps back from debates about talking to the Taliban and bombing Iran would open windows to a worldview in which those decisions come more naturally – because they’re part of the same architecture that leads us to cooperate and compete with China; help Japan recover from its earthquake even as we try to surpass its auto companies; and work with democratic allies with whom we sometimes strongly disagree from Europe to Brazil to Israel. 

But I haven’t been out of government so long as to be naïve about this.  As I’ve written before, the exercise of writing the national security/foreign policy section of a president’s State of the Union is one you could market to masochists.  Hundreds of versions of dozens of paragraphs, slowly edged out by domestic priorities and whittled away by political consultants, down to a sad few paragraphs on wars, troops and –always – a nod to trade. What I’ve just done is rough out an oil painting.  Election-year messaging, rather, is somewhere between street graffiti and Etch-a-Sketch – quick, bright, simple, impermanent.


January 20, 2012

Grand Strategy in Four Points
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Charlie_KupchanIn the next week or so, details of next year’s defense budget will begin to seep from the halls of the White House and the Defense Department. The budget will, at least in theory, be guided by the Defense Strategic Review released by the White House earlier this month. That document laid out a military strategy.

But the conduct of foreign affairs goes beyond issues of force structure and military doctrine (although those are, of course, essential). A military strategy should follow a grand strategy. Several attempts have been made at exploring a grand strategy for a post Iraq and Afghanistan/financial crisis-era. Richard Haass has argued for a “restoration” strategy. Dan Drezner has looked at the Obama administration’s strategy, which he characterizes as “counterpunching.” Officially, there's the National Security Strategy.

In the latest issue of Democracy (yes, I’m behind on reading), Charlie Kupchan of Georgetown and CFR puts forth four principles for a progressive grand strategy. The piece is a strong addition to the discussion. Below are those four principles, along with portions of the piece that are especially relevant in the context of the U.S. political debate:

Restore political and economic solvency: “The first first principle of a progressive agenda is that political and economic renewal at home is the indispensable foundation for strength abroad. Conservatives do not offer a credible alternative to this first plank of a progressive agenda. They not only fail to appreciate the vital link between bipartisanship and national security but deliberately seek to undermine political consensus. President George W. Bush sought to exploit, not repair, political divides; his advisers explicitly advocated polarizing policies that catered to the Republican base, not the moderate center. Since Obama entered office, Republicans have consistently sought to obstruct his foreign policies—regardless of the substantive merits.”

Balancing means with ends. “Progressives have the right formula for finding this balance between doing too much and too little. Going back to the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the progressive foreign policy agenda has consistently embraced a liberal internationalism that is equal parts power and partnership.”

Making room for the rising rest: “While perhaps emotionally satisfying, the neoconservative preference for regime change is a recipe for self-defeating adventurism; America’s recent forays into nation-building have produced scant benefits at enormous costs. The assumption that illiberal regimes yield only when forced into submission also flies in the face of history. The most notable geopolitical breakthroughs of the twentieth century came not through coercion, but bold diplomacy—Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in Jerusalem, Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong in Beijing, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik. Moreover, stabilizing the global economy, ensuring energy supplies, combating nuclear proliferation and terrorism—these and many other international challenges require working with, not isolating, non-democracies.”

Reviving the Atlantic Community. “Although conservatives are often dismissive of Europe due to its lack of hard power, they generally appreciate the importance of a transatlantic community that rests on common values and interests. While neoconservatives tended to denigrate the Atlantic partnership during George W. Bush’s first term—particularly because many Europeans opposed the Iraq War—Bush changed course during his second term and worked hard to repair the Atlantic link.”

Kupchan’s piece is nicely balanced in terms of accessibility and comprehensiveness. It’s a clear blueprint for how to integrate the domestic with the international, the political with the economic and military components of power--and turn the whole mix into a coherent approach to the world. Go and read the whole thing.

Photo: CFR

January 18, 2012

Romney’s Afghanistan Plan Comes Into Focus
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Romney at CitadelThus far in the campaign, Mitt Romney has not elucidated a clear position on what he’d do in Afghanistan. Dan Balz pointed this out back in October (I commented on that piece here). Basically, early on and intermittently throughout the campaign, Romney has suggested that he wants to avoid “nation building” and that “only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.” But those comments, aimed to pick up on some of the isolationist sentiment in the conservative movement, drew quick rebukes from the establishment. In response, Romney has reverted back to a more hardline position. We saw this last Monday when Romney, directly opposing the advice of his advisors, rejected talks with the Taliban. (David Ignatius has a good explanation of why this zinger was a mistake.)

It seems fair now to assume that Romney’s position on Afghanistan as explained lately and in his campaign documents and official foreign policy speeches represents his actual position, despite equivocations to the contrary. In those places, Romney has laid out several firm strategic principles. Let’s look at each of them and draw conclusions. After all, as Romney has said, “The commander in chief also has to be the educator in chief and has to communicate to the American people why he is making the decisions he’s making.” 

Principle 1: The Taliban—not just al Qaeda and international terrorismmust be completely crushed. Romney’s first strategic principle is that the mission in Afghanistan includes the total defeat of the Taliban, not just the end of international terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. In his Citadel speech, Romney asked, “In Afghanistan, 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?” Romney explained 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.” Romney’s foreign policy white paper also says the U.S. goal in Afghanistan is military defeat of the Taliban or at least an Afghan army that can hold them off. “He will order a full interagency assessment of our military and assistance presence in Afghanistan to determine the level required to secure our gains and to train Afghan forces to the point where they can protect the sovereignty of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban.”

Principle 2: No talks with the Taliban until they stop fighting. The second strategic principle, articulated Monday night, is no talks with the Taliban. As Romney said then, “The right course for America is not to negotiate with the Taliban while the Taliban are killing our soldiers. The right course is to recognize they’re the enemy of the United States. It’s the vice president [Joe Biden] who said they’re not the enemy of the United States. The vice president’s wrong. They are the enemy. They’re killing American soldiers.”

Principle 3: The Obama administration’s withdrawal policy is too fast. The third strategic principle is that the current plan for withdrawing ISAF forces is too fast. This is what Romney means when he says that he would listen to the “commanders on the ground” and slow the withdrawal going into 2014. (For an explanation of why this particular construct is misguided, see here and here.)

Given these strategic principles, the promised review by a future President Romney would, almost by definition, require the U.S., to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan and to commit them to stay there indefinitely – call it a “Romney surge.” With no talks on the horizon and a U.S. commitment to their total defeat—combined with the safety of a haven in Pakistan—the Taliban would have strong incentive to keep fighting and no incentive to renounce al Qaeda and international terrorism. More broadly, increasing the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan would continue add stress to our defense budgets and require a larger force or lower troop numbers in Asia or the Middle East. The rebalancing of U.S. foreign policy would stop in its tracks.

It’s time to recognize that, despite his equivocations, Mitt Romney has the outlines of an Afghanistan policy. The media and pundits should take the candidate as his word, follow the strategic outlines he’s established to their logical conclusions and hold the candidate accountable. Right now, those strategic principles augur a forever war in Afghanistan, one that differs from John McCain’s “100 years war” in Iraq only because Romney hasn’t put a figure on his.

We know what Romney thinks. Now he needs to make the case for why that’s in the American national security interest.

Photo: Flickr

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