Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Joystick Limitations

“Members of Obama’s foreign-policy circle say that when he is criticized for his reaction to situations like Iran’s Green Revolution, in 2009, or the last days of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, in 2011, he complains that people imagine him to have a “joystick” that allows him to manipulate precise outcomes.”
 —David Remnick, “Going the Distance,” in the January 27 issue of The New Yorker

We learned last week from David Remnick’s New Yorker piece that President Obama does not watch Sunday morning news programs. But we also learned that, on foreign policy, he reads and consults journalist/author Fareed Zakaria, who has a show on CNN. So maybe the president was watching when Zakaria called the U.S.’s interim agreement with Iran “a train wreck” on the cable channel’s New Day program on Thursday.

Zakaria was promoting his news-making interview with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, in which the leader had stated unequivocally that Iran would not be destroying any centrifuges and that two heavy water reactors would continue in operation. “So this seems like, you know, this is still born,” said Zakaria. “I’m not even quite sure what they’re going to talk about if these are the opening positions.”

The White House’s reaction was interesting. Press Secretary Jay Carney repeated the now standard line about how you cannot really pay attention to any of the provocative things Rouhani says because, well, he’s only saying them to placate hardliners in his country. You know, the way governments always say things they do not really believe or that they know aren’t true to get around unreasonable factions.

Kind of like saying that the attack in Benghazi was a spontaneous display of mob emotion inspired by a YouTube video. Or saying that, if you like your healthcare plan and/or your doctor, you can keep them. These are, after all, just things governments say to placate extreme hardliners.

The difference, of course, is that the “hardliners” that the U.S. administration has to deal with are actual voters. Rouhani doesn’t have to worry about voters so much in his country. The only hardliners he really needs to placate are the mullahs who hold the real power. They don’t have to worry so much about losing power because of angry voters.

It is, of course, correct that the U.S. president does not have some sort of magic joystick that lets him manipulate events, and he certainly cannot be blamed for every bad thing that happens in the world. Even in the case of the Benghazi attack—where clearly signals were missed that shouldn’t have been—it is ultimately unfair, or at last unrealistic, to blame the president personally for not preventing it. On the other hand, he and his administration rightly deserve criticism for deliberately misleading the public about the nature of the attack in the days before his reelection. Even so, I blame the establishment press more than the president. After all, it is only natural for politicians to try to mislead us, while it is the press’s job to point it out to us when they do.

No, we cannot complain that the president did not somehow magically help the Iranian protestors in 2009 or transition Egypt to authentic democracy. But those of us who believe that people throughout the world are better off living under liberal democracy can indeed complain that he did not at least give moral support to those who took to the streets in support of greater democracy in the case of the Green Revolution. Apparently he was so keen, even back then, to start talks with the Iranian government that protests in the streets over election fraud seemed like an inconvenient distraction to him. What a wasted opportunity to speak up for Western liberal values.

In examining President Obama’s view of foreign policy, Remnick quotes his deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes as saying, “In the foreign-policy establishment, to be an idealist you have to be for military intervention… In the Democratic Party, these debates were defined in the nineties, and the idealists lined up for military intervention. For the President, Iraq was the defining issue, and now Syria is viewed through that lens, as was Libya—to be an idealist, you have to be a military interventionist.”

Obama’s “realism” is then described in the article by Zakaria, who says that it “comes from the idea that change is organic and change comes to countries in its own way, modernization comes in its own way, rather than through liberation narratives coming from the West.” If that is truly the president’s mindset, then it is no wonder that he seems passive—and at times hapless—as events unfold.

The above quotes equate the word idealist with meddler or adventurist and suggest that the only alternative to idealism is to engage diplomatically with other governments without regard to what their populations may be suffering—a notion that was reinforced by the foreign policy section of the president’s State of the Union speech.

The problem is that there are any number of actors (both government and non-government) out there actively competing throughout the world to evangelize their particular value system. The U.S. government may politely respect other countries’ right to sort out their own values, but the likes of Russia, China and Al Qaeda have no hesitation to push their ideologies through conversion, support and, if possible, by force.

The Western system of liberal democracy and liberal economic policies has been more successful than any other, and in places like Ukraine we see that people are hungry for Western values. Western countries should not be shy or apologetic about selling the benefits of freedom and democracy. And this does not have to mean military intervention. It means speaking out in favor of Western values, strongly criticizing injustice and giving active support to those factions whose values coincide with ours.

Too often the president seems under the illusion that those whose values are antithetical to ours can be wooed into accommodation. That is why he and his spokespeople work so hard at parsing distinctions between things like “core Al Qaeda” and mere affiliates and sympathizers.

The reality is that knowing what our values are and being willing to stand up for them and for people who share them does not have to require military intervention. In fact, such forthrightness can actually help to avoid it.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Messages from Air Force One

  “He remembers going with his mother to live in Indonesia, in 1967—shortly
  after a military coup, engineered with American help, led to the slaughter
  of hundreds of thousands of people. This event, and the fact that so few
  Americans know much about it, made a lasting impression on Obama.”
   —David Remnick, “Going the Distance,” in the January 27 issue of
     The New Yorker

In the latest New Yorker there is a long piece by the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for a book about the Soviet Union. The article recounts time Remnick spent with the president during a three-day fundraising swing on the West Coast in November. It is one of those pieces that creates a fair amount of buzz, mainly because of the close-up look it gives readers of the man who is ostensibly the most powerful in the world and because of the fresh batch of direct quotes it provides.

Since the article first became available, Remnick has been seemingly everywhere on TV news shows. The piece has been combed for details and thoroughly discussed in blogs and other media. It’s the kind of exposure that usually gets heaped on the release of a hot new book.

Personally, I thought the best reaction on TV came from The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, who sat next to Remnick on Sunday’s pundit panel on ABC’s This Week.

She said to him, “I found I was fascinated by your piece. I found the president in the piece to be somewhat passive, somewhat thoughtful, smart, but going through the motions. You were with him, I think, three days. He’s at fundraisers where he’s handling rich people, and he’s playing cards on the plane. I’ll tell you, the portrait struck me as, whoa, we don’t have enough problems for this man to be doing active and serious things while David Remnick is with him?”

Visibly taken aback, Remnick muttered, “I think that’s an odd reading…” as the rest of the group broke into nervous laughter. He went on to explain that all presidents do party fundraising.

You might wonder about the president’s reaction to the discussion, but thanks to Remnick we know that he would not have seen it. When Senator Chuck Schumer criticized the relaxation of sanctions against Iran on Meet the Press, wrote Remnick, “Obama hadn’t tuned in. ‘I don’t watch Sunday-morning shows,’ he said. ‘That’s been a well-established rule.’ Instead, he went out to play ball.”

When it comes to foreign policy, the passage that seems to have stirred up the most comment is the one where the president talks about Al Qaeda. Remnick reminds him of how, in the 2012 campaign, he spoke of killing Osama bin Laden and of how Al Qaeda had been decimated. “I pointed out that the flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Falluja, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too.”

The president’s response: “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” He goes on to elaborate that “how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”

He is right of course right that, if a group of people calling themselves Al Qaeda happen to be exert control over territory in the Middle East through violent means, it doesn’t necessarily imply an direct or immediate threat to the United States. The problem is that, when people calling themselves Al Qaeda left Sudan in 1996 to set up a headquarters in Afghanistan, they did not pose a direct or immediate threat to the United States that time either—until they did.

Does he not think it significant that groups of people, who are organized around a common ideology that is strongly anti-western and who use a common name, are gaining territory on two different continents and are recruiting converts internationally—regardless of the nature of their links to the late Osama bin Laden’s inner circle?

The amount of time and effort that the president and his spokespeople put into parsing and distinguishing the idea of “core Al Qaeda” versus Al Qaeda affiliates, allies, wannabes, etc. tends to confuse rather than shed light on the extent of any threats these groups pose. Presumably, this is a byproduct of the Benghazi issue, which refuses to die. Republicans have been loath to let that attack fade into history, although lately it has been others who are keeping it alive.

In December The New York Times published an in-depth piece on the Benghazi attack by David Kirkpatrick that was clearly intended to be the last word on the subject. It raised eyebrows by dismissing the idea of Al Qaeda involvement and giving credence to the administration’s original insistence that a YouTube video was to blame. But Kirkpatrick’s assessment wasn’t nearly as clear cut as his detractors and defenders made it sound. He wrote, “Benghazi was not infiltrated by Al Qaeda, but nonetheless contained grave local threats to American interests. The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs.”

Unfortunately for this grand summation, less than three weeks later the Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Dianne Feinstein, released its report on the matter stating, “Individuals affiliated with terrorist groups, including AQIM [Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], Ansar al-Sharia, AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], and the Mohammad Jamal Network, participated in the September 11, 2012, attacks.”

The thing is that the basic facts about the Benghazi attack—including who the perpetrators were—have been pretty well known since soon after it occurred a year ago last September. All of the arguing about it ever since has been about the spin. That is why there is so much pointless discussion over whether this group or that group were “real” or “core” Al Qaeda or merely affiliates or sympathizers. As someone once demanded to know, “What difference does it make?”

And that is precisely the point. That rhetorical question was, of course, asked by Hillary Clinton, secretary of state at the time of the attack. She is one of the main reasons that there is so much furious spinning on both sides about the attack. One side wants her possible presidential campaign damaged. The other side wants it not to be.

That’s what difference it makes. American foreign policy which, at one time, was fairly bi-partisan, has become extremely politicized.

In any event, there are more interesting tidbits in Remnick’s article that shed light on President Obama’s foreign policy thinking and which deserve exploration.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Gambits and Endgames

  “With Obama, however, I joined a new, inexperienced president determined
  to change course—and equally determined from day one to win re-election.”
   —Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

As I like to say, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who always divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t. I am firmly in the former category. Here’s an example. In terms of foreign policy, there are two kinds of U.S. presidents: those who have a geostrategic orientation and those who react to situations based on a set of values.

Generally, most presidents in my lifetime have been of the geostrategist variety. Only two, in my view, have been more values-based decision makers. Those would be Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

So what exactly do I mean by the labels “geostrategist” and “values-oriented”?

The geostrategist sees the world as a massive chessboard. He accepts that the United States, because of the sheer size of its economy and military footprint, will inevitably affect the rest of the world and that the rest of the world will react, sometimes preemptively, to that impact. His primary aim will be to protect and indeed further American interests and to safeguard the country’s security. Because the world is complex, he will try to look several moves ahead to see the consequences of every move the U.S. and other countries make internationally. The geostrategist tends to be comfortable with the use of military force abroad.

The values-oriented leader, by contrast, operates by a code of international good conduct. His priority is to be faithful to a set of values that is consistent with the American character as well as an understood code of behavior for the way nations should treat their citizens and other countries. This type of president is comfortable with foreign involvements when it is clear that it will improve a situation, but his default position is to focus on matters at home and not get entangled abroad. Like the geostrategist, he is concerned with American security but is less inclined to act preemptively to protect it.

Of course, my two descriptions are over-simplified. In reality, every president has a mixture of the two tendencies. But, as I say, most have been stronger on the geostrategist side than the values-oriented side. It is not a coincidence that the two exceptions were elected after the U.S. had been involved for years in wars that seemed to many to be intractable. Carter was elected after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, and Obama was elected as the war in Iraq was winding down. It is possible to see those two presidents’ elections, at least in part, as a collective drawing inward by the American people.

What we can also see from the Carter example is that an inward-drawing phase tends to be followed a return to military muscle-flexing. Carter was succeeded by Ronald Reagan, who was quite comfortable with the use of military force and with bold assertiveness toward the Soviet Union. Americans don’t like getting bogged down in a war far away from home, but they don’t like to see their country acting too passively either.

President Obama was elected after campaigning to bring troops home from Iraq. This was an easy enough promise to keep since the troop withdrawal had already been negotiated by his predecessor before Obama even took office. What he neglected to then do was to secure a Status of Forces agreement that would have left a residual U.S. force in the country. He went through the motions of trying to negotiate an agreement, but it seems pretty clear that his heart wasn’t in it. Like most other Americans, he just wanted to be done with Iraq altogether. Now al-Qaeda has retaken ground in Ramadi and Fallujah, places where many American lives were spent in expelling al-Qaeda forces.

Americans did not want to get involved in Syria either. And after an amazing display of the president threatening to use force and then retracting his threat, the civil war in Syria rages on—with more casualties than ever. Some critics contend that backing indigenous rebels early on could have resulted in the removal of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship and a new government that was not completely anti-American. We will never know if that was true because now the rebel movement is now increasingly dominated by Isis, a ruthless al-Qaeda affiliate made up of mostly foreign fighters.

If the Obama administration is to point to any success in the Middle East, it might be the talks with Iran over its nuclear program. And yet the curious thing about the interim agreement that made those talks possible is that it was an agreement that the administration could have had any time during the previous year. Iran did not actually change its position on anything to get partial relief from sanctions. So what changed to make the agreement possible? It was purely down to a change in Iran’s presidency. The antagonistic and provocative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was replaced by the more presentable and reasonable-sounding Hassan Rouhani. Otherwise, nothing has really changed. What is striking is how eager the president and his Secretary of State John Kerry were to relax the sanctions and how desperate they are to stop a move by a majority of Senators to restore the sanctions automatically in the event that Iran does not live up to its side of the bargain. Why would he be against that? Because it sets a firm deadline for the talks to succeed. The president does not want the talks to be cut off—apparently for any reason.

It seems pretty clear what the president is thinking. He probably believes that it is inevitable that Iran will become a nuclear power. He may well be right, and maybe that was always going to be true—regardless of who was president. In any event, his current efforts seem to be concentrated entirely on making sure that, when Iran does get its nuclear weapon, it happens on some other president’s watch.

History suggests that the next president will be more of a geostrategist. And what will that president find on the chessboard that has been left for him or her? It will be a swath across the Middle East consisting of Syria and Iraq (with al-Qaeda on the rise in both) and Iran (for years on the State Department’s list of leading sponsors of terrorism) with de facto nuclear weapon capability.