Thursday, January 20, 2011

Obama and the world at the halfway point: An Ink Spots narrative report card

Two years ago today, Barack Obama was inaugurated as president. With the full extent of the economic downturn still somewhat obscure, there were high hopes for an era of American resurgence and a reconsideration of the indispensable nation's posture to the world.

Many of those hopes have been dashed as the dual shocks of a decade of war and a crumbling economy pull our focus inward. But foreign and security policy still matter, even if no one's paying attention. We here at Ink Spots wanted to take a look at the successes and failures of the Obama administration's first two years out in the world, to do a sort of mid-term report card. A few of us took a crack at the subject by answering a dozen questions about where we've been and where we're going.

1. What's been the biggest surprise to you about U.S. foreign policy over the last two years? Any pleasant surprises? Any significant disappointments?

Lil: The biggest surprise? I really don’t know. Pleasant surprises (in no particular order): the lifting of the peacekeeping cap, the passage of new START, increased attention to conflict/crisis in Africa. Significant disappointment: continued failure to adequately fund and staff State and USAID.

Alma: I was surprised that transatlantic relations did not warm up more. President Obama came to office with high popularity ratings on the part of Europeans—and their political leaders. “Old Europe” was hoping for a drastic change in attitude on the part of the United States after the eight years of the Bush presidency. However, the relations have remained oddly distant. There has been a similar disappointment with Africa. The rest of the world expected Obama to bring to the U.S. presidency a more internationalist view, based on his multicultural background and education. But the United States did not want a President who devotes too much time to foreign policy while there is a crisis at home. And President Obama himself had an ambitious political agenda, in the pursuit of which he needed to make major strides very quickly after his election. As a result, he focused—understandingly—on gathering domestic support and downplayed what the rest of the world saw as his value added. An illustration of this is President Obama’s facial expressions when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009 (“for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”). Maybe I am reading too much into this, but I felt that in addition to the “Why, but why?” puzzled look, his uneasy smile hinted at a more daunting: “What is the backlash going to be at home?”

Gulliver: Frankly, I’m surprised the administration has spent so much time and effort on a subject that seems basically irrelevant to the president’s political fortunes: Afghanistan. Considering the state of the economy, it’s hard to imagine the mid-term elections having gone any worse for the Democrats if the White House had deemphasized the war effort and drawn down our overseas presence. The Woodward book gave me the strong sense that the president has a realistic view about OEF’s uncertain (and perhaps even damaging) relationship to genuine national security, so I’m shocked he lacked the conviction to stand up to senior military advice.

2. What do you think are Obama's, Clinton's, and Gates' biggest accomplishments and biggest disappointments in these two years?

Lil: I think one clear accomplishment is the improvement of relations with some of our key allies. Some of these relationships had been badly damaged during the Bush Administration and it seems to me that many of these problems, particularly in Western Europe have been resolved. Things have also improved at the UN, both with other Permanent Missions and in the Secretariat. I think a disappointment on that front has been the inability (or perhaps the unwillingness) to get the UN Secretary General to grow a spine and show some leadership. I really hope that the US doesn’t support Ban Ki-Moon running for re-election. His tenure has been disastrous.

Another, and I don’t know who the credit goes to on this one, maybe all three is the clear improvement in policy-making processes and dialogue at the most senior levels. It’s clear that the President, Clinton and Gates work together very well. That’s a good change. I think that the mutual support that Gates and Clinton provide each other has had clear positive repercussions.

I think one accomplishment for Gates has been his work to trim the defense budget. He’s been foiled by Congress at times but I think this is very important, along with his support for more capacity at State and USAID. It’s disappointing that he hasn’t been more successful so I guess a disappointment is the inability to work with Congress—though the passing of new START during the lame duck session was an accomplishment for sure.

Gulliver: I wrote this question, but I still have a hell of a time answering it. I think the president did great work to keep Bob Gates at the Pentagon longer than most people expected, and the level of coordination and collaboration – at least in the public eye – across the entire national-security team has to be considered as an accomplishment for all three. Avoiding a major political fight on the evolution of our missile-defense construct toward the Phased Adaptive Approach was another big highlight.

On the negative side of the ledger, I’m discouraged by the collective failure to take steps in the direction of major national security reform despite apparent (or at least expressed) unity of purpose across State and Defense. Without that, the QDDR doesn’t mean much of anything. And then, obviously, there’s Afghanistan: I wish one of these three would go beyond the boilerplate talking points and try to make a reasoned case for how the war will make Americans safer, but instead we’re treated to Bushian no-safe-havens rationales and appeals to the grievous threat of terrorism.

3. What do you think about the decisions the president has made about Afghanistan? Were you surprised about the escalation?

Lil: I think the civilian surge makes sense and I can’t remember whether I was surprised about it, more relieved I suppose. I was just at an event yesterday where PRT commanders complained (again) that they basically had four civilians on their team (though those numbers are growing). I think there are still huge problems with the amount of money we are spending in Afghanistan, mostly because Afghanistan lacks the capacity to absorb the money in a transparent and effective way. I haven’t yet seen the new US anticorruption strategy, which McClatchy said recently would instruct focus on low level corruption and avoid the political disasters of going after Karzai and senior Afghan officials. Of course, I think it’s disappointing that our leaders aren’t willing to go after officials whose corruption is so blindingly obvious that it makes us look like naïve children for not noticing (either that or hypocrites, depending on your perspective). I was shocked to discover that fighting corruption was not a focus on the Bush Administration and that efforts had basically begun just months after Obama took office.

Similarly, I think the troop surge also makes sense. I don’t feel like I know enough about how operations are being conducted to say how much it will help but it seems that if you say you’re doing population centric COIN and you want to secure the population, then you’ll need more troops to do it (so long as they’re not razing villages for obscure reasons).

Alma: Democrat presidents are rarely at ease with the military. They have to fight two common beliefs: that they do not know much about military issues and that they will make decisions that are generally adverse to the military. President Obama was aware of these pitfalls and accordingly refrained from micro-managing the conduct of the war in Afghanistan. He also gave a large amount of initiative to his top commanders there. And when is the last time a general asked for less troops rather than more? So: no, I am not surprised about the escalation.

Gulliver: I’ve already touched on this, but I think they’ve been almost universally terrible. “Obama’s Wars” probably made me feel even worse about this, because it reinforced earlier suggestions – contrary to campaign rhetoric – that the president is actually a thoughtful skeptic of the war-as-counterterrorism approach. So I suppose I’m retroactively surprised about the escalation, though it seemed basically preordained and unavoidable in December of 2009. There’s a lot of blame to go around on this one – the coordinated McChrystal/Petraeus/Mullen pitch for escalation, however inevitable and effective, was a real disappointment for me – but it comes back to the president giving strong guidance and having the confidence to make unpopular decisions. On this, he failed.

4. What's your expectation for what will happen to troop numbers in Afghanistan over the course of this year? How about by 2014?

Lil: I think there will be a small decrease this year and probably another in 2012 (basically for domestic consumption during the campaign). I think Administration have been steadily walking back the 2011 deadline and they’ll continue to do so. As for numbers by 2014, I think that will depend on how things go between now and then. The decision last week to push for a large increase in the size of the ANSF to me suggests that things aren’t going as well as military leadership would like and that increasing the nominal size of the forces will be the only way to ensure that there are enough forces, eventually, to guarantee some security. I don’t have much evidence to back to that but really the Pentagon’s quarterly reports on the state of the ANSF don’t give me much confidence.

Alma: Some U.S. troops will withdraw over the Summer, but most likely in very small numbers. The ¨surge¨ of troops has only now completely arrived to Afghanistan, and there will be pressure to use these big numbers to the fullest before they go back home—in other words, give the surge a chance. Also, since withdrawal has repeatedly been made conditional to improved security conditions on the ground, the whole process is likely to take years—probably extending beyond 2014. As for non-U.S. troops, the answer is easier: there will be fewer and fewer of them. There is no other country committed as deeply as the United States, and there is no other country that feels its credibility, where it to withdraw, would suffer as much as the United States’. This credibility issue has led U.S. presence in Vietnam or even Lebanon to last much longer than the interests they pursued and their chances of success warranted. Countries who do not have this credibility issue and public opinions hostile to the Afghanistan intervention will call it quits.

Gulliver: I think the numbers will remain basically static through the end of 2012, and that ISAF, the Pentagon, and the White House will juke the numbers by withdrawing support troops. I don’t envision widespread transfer of battlespace-ownership to the ANSF (maybe some in RC-West), though I don’t have nearly the detailed knowledge of operational geography to pass anywhere close to conclusive judgment on this. As for 2014… NATO’s on the record on that one, and I don’t see it slipping. Whoever’s in the White House will rationalize and justify, conclude that our work there has been productive and meaningful to national security, and we’ll keep a few thousand SOF and aviation assets at Bagram and Kandahar into the indefinite future.

5. Do you think the "Global War on Terror" still means anything? How about the Struggle Against Violent Extremism? Where do you think we are with AQ – do they still matter? Is terrorism the primary threat to the U.S., or should we be focused elsewhere?

Lil: Well, I don’t think either meant much in the first place. I think AQ (in its various regional incarnations) still matters but I don’t think that terrorism is the primary threat to the US. I don’t think I buy the argument that our focus on terrorism has been the reason why we haven’t been attacked again, I think we’ve just been lucky (and would-be terrorists were thwarted by their own incompetence). I think that rather than focus on AQ, we should be focused on what makes people want to join AQ. I know that varies from place to place but that’s what foreign policy is for. I’m not sure that we’ve yet achieved that balance in terms of either human or financial resources that are being spent on diplomacy and foreign assistance.

Alma: Did GWOT ever mean anything? It was a catchphrase whose reach and grandeur was a good match for the shock people felt after 9/11. As a political and military concept, it is empty of meaning and useless (and I feel like I am beating a dead horse here—so many people smarter than me have made that demonstration before me that I would not know where to start). Law enforcement is usually the appropriate response to terrorism—war is not. I am not denying the usefulness of a few well-targeted air strikes from time to time. But overhauling the entire political (and social) landscape of a country? This fulfills other aims: hubris, posturing, you name it. But not counter-terrorism.

Gulliver: I don’t think either of the terms have ever had any analytical or operational utility, but they’ve certainly informed the strategic context in which the military conceives of and explains its plans. There are other people who can speak in a far more informed way about the ongoing campaign against al-Qaeda, but I’d just say that I think we do a tremendous disservice to our national sense of self when we build our approach to the world around the one specific anti-globalist, rejectionist element that’s proven most capable of doing violence to our citizens. I don’t mean to suggest at all that 9/11 and terrorism aren’t a big deal, but I’d urge perspective: the reason AQAM are relevant is for their opposition to the global system of commerce and relationships that we’ve helped to create in our own image and still largely lead. Let’s not forget about the rest of it, and about how important it is to maintain that system and manage our place in it to positive effect.

6. Do you think "reset" with Russia is "working"? What does that mean to you? Do you foresee any further expansion of NATO during Obama's tenure? If so, which countries?

Lil: I really don’t have anything intelligent to say on Russia. So I’ll skip that. NATO expansion, something else I know next to nothing about so I’ll leave that to Gulliver and others. I do think though that it’s good that France came back.

Gulliver: I’m a Russia skeptic. I lived in a country that’s been partitioned and occupied by Russia four times. I wrote my master’s thesis about expanding NATO to hedge against Russian recidivism. I don’t believe Russia can be meaningfully deflected from the pursuit of its own interests. That said: yes, it’s working. A stable international system can only be maintained by taking Russia into account; this doesn’t mean we’re always going to win Moscow’s support, but Russian influence needs to be managed. Sometimes we’re just hoping they’ll clear a very low bar: continue to negotiate arms agreements, don’t escalate aggression in the Caucasus, don’t reflexively oppose U.S. interests in the Security Council. At other times, we’re looking for more meaningful and significant action: help crack down on piracy, line up with the rest of the world on Iranian nuclear progress, don’t sell sophisticated weapons to pariah states, take action to ease tensions with NATO. Sending the message that we view our relationship with Russia in a pragmatic, reasonable way – that we take their interests into account and don’t press for meaningless advantage – will pay off in the future, and we’re already seeing benefits.

I think NATO’s done growing, and that’s as it should be. There’s no one else the U.S. ought to commit to defending, no matter the circumstances – the Georgia troubles in 2008 underlined that – and such a pledge at this point could only be taken as a symbolic gesture of aggression (e.g. we’re going to protect Georgia because we like their political system better than yours, not because it serves our material interests). There could be meaningful progress with Ukraine, but their national politics have taken a turn over the last several years that makes that seem unlikely.

7. Can you envision a scenario where U.S. troops would be sent to the African continent in the next two years? Where might they go next, if anywhere?

Lil: I have to say, I really don’t see this happening, or at least not in very large numbers. Don’t get me wrong, I think that it would be great if the US sent more staff officers to work in UN missions. I’m not saying a US general should take command of a UN operation but really, after seeing for myself how the military parts of some missions suffer from lack of good staff, I think even a few US O-4s to O-6s could do a lot of good on jobs ranging from logistics, to operational planning, to intelligence.

US troops are doing things like training African militaries (for example in Congo) or providing support to operations in Uganda elsewhere. I don’t see US troops going into Côte d’Ivoire, I really hope there’s no need to go into Liberia Liberia and I just don’t see the US sending troops to Zimbabwe or Sudan, even if Mugabe’s regime collapses and Sudan implodes. I think the US should support another western country going in to help (say if the French increased their presence in Côte d’Ivoire or the UK went into Zimbabwe post Mugabe) but I really don’t see the US leading any kind of mission. As we’ve discussed before, I think the US could do a lot of good by helping to go after the LRA but since MK previously outlined how that would work, I won’t rehash it here.

Alma: US troops are already on the African continent, where they train numerous local armies. This “quiet intervention” should remain as quiet as possible to be effective, and I have no doubt it will continue in the next two years. But if we are thinking big deployment Somalia-style, then I very much doubt this will be happening.

Gulliver: I’ll let the others speak to possible African hot-spots, but I think the enthusiasm for deployments that could involve casualties is really, really waning. (One curious effect of the Bush Doctrine and the COIN revolution is that Americans are probably now even MORE opposed to overseas intervention in the absence of a strong self-interested rationale. “Counterterrorism” is the vestigial exception.) We’ll still do security cooperation and capacity-building, but the uniformed U.S. footprint for these missions is much, much smaller than most people think. (“U.S.-trained” Ugandan AMISOM peacekeepers mostly get their instruction from State-contracted DynCorp and MPRI folks in baseball caps, not green-suiters.)

8. Do you see isolationist/anti-engagement sentiment playing a significant part in the 2012 election? Or foreign policy at all?

Lil: Yes, I think this could play a big part, combined with concern over budget deficits, high unemployment at home, and a desire to appease the electorate here. I think that this could be a big problem because it could cause us to ignore problems or simply abandon challenging places and that this could later come back to haunt us.

Alma: Isolationism was already very present in the run-up to the 2010 elections. U.S. presidents are expected to focus on America first, and this is even more true in times of economic (and, inevitably social) turmoil. The President’s contenders are expected to show how the country’s leader really does not have his constituents’ interests at heart, and prefers to get busy with larger issues than help the average Joe get a job or keep his house. So yes, the 2012 election will be played largely on domestic themes, and with an isolationist mindset.

Gulliver: Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t. There might be some talk of restraint, retrenchment, or even isolationism among early Republican pretenders, but there’s simply no chance a Republican nominee will come at Obama talking national security as a fiscal responsibility issue. Eric Cantor and John McCain may make some noise about how defense spending is on the table for budget cuts, but no mainstream Republicans are prepared to reconsider firmly-entrenched ideas about American exceptionalism and global primacy, and the establishment is too afraid of tea-party extremism to propel an isolationist libertarian to the nomination.
The president, for his part, has spent the last two years insulating himself from traditional accusations of weak-kneed liberalism; the only way his opponents make any ground is by emphasizing alleged humiliations like “reset”, China’s rise, and “failure” on Iran. Foreign and security policy just doesn’t look like a useful campaign tool this time around, particularly with the economy in the tank. Engagement is here to stay, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, that means that interventionist mistakes like Afghanistan will probably stick around, too.

9. Any guesses on the next SECDEF? How long do you think Gates will stay?

Lil: Umm, I hope it’s not Joe Lieberman. Gates staying, I don’t know.

Gulliver: I keep hearing Danzig, and Flournoy’s an intriguing option, but I don’t think my guesses are better than anybody else’s. The fact of the matter is that the next guy (or gal) will 100%, ironclad, stone-cold, for certain not be as effective as Gates. And that’s a shame. Fingers crossed that he’ll stick around through the next election cycle, but I’m not even sure he knows the plan at this point.

10. Do you see a realistic possibility of significant cuts to the defense budget, significant increases of the State/foreign aid budget, or any combination of the two? Is a pooled resources proposal still alive? Do you think there's a chance of significant national security reform during the Obama administration? If so what should it (or will it) look like?

Lil: I think that budgets are going to be cut across the board but I hope that the cuts will be less significant at State and USAID. I think actually that rationalizing the Defense budget (or trying to) is one of Gates’ greatest accomplishments.

I haven’t heard about the pooled resources thing in a while. I wonder if it died with the UK budget cuts (my understanding is that was the model).

As for national security reform, I don’t know what the chances are (Congress) but I do hope we’ll end up sometime with some kind of national security career in the government that makes doing this job attractive and of course positive for our policies.

Gulliver: As I noted before, I consider it a massive disappointment that this isn’t already happening (at least not with any great alacrity) with a national security team in place that is perhaps more amenable to sweeping reform than any other ever has been or will be. We could use a root-and-branch reexamination of the fundamental roles and missions of our various departments and agencies, but I don’t think that’s going to happen: we’ll use the ongoing wars as an excuse (“you can’t drive and rebuild the engine at the same time!”), but that argument ignores the fact that in our new “security” paradigm, we’re always driving. Congress poses some pretty serious roadblocks to an effort like this, too, what with the impact on oversight and what could reasonably be seen as a consolidation of power in an Executive Branch optimally organized for operations. My great fear is that a failure to examine these important questions – what is the difference between foreign policy and security policy? Who should decide which partners we’ll build the capacity of? How do our security objectives nest within our broader foreign policy objectives… or have we unconsciously flipped the two? – will result in the accumulation of more authority, responsibility, and influence in the Pentagon: the much-feared “militarization of foreign policy” (a term that I really dislike despite its literal descriptive accuracy).

11. What's the national security/foreign policy story from the last two years that nobody knows, but everybody should?

Lil: No clue. I think we as Americans need to become better at educating ourselves about what other countries are like, what lives people have in countries we care about, and also what life is like in countries that have long suffered from conflict, violence, lack of resources, and the absence of democracy. I don’t think Americans should just be discovering that Ben Ali ruled Tunisia with an iron fist or that we care about Guinea because of tin (and of course pervasive human rights violations). I think though that this is a question of education. Maybe that’s the big story: how are problems in our educational system going to affect our ability to interact with the world and do so in a way that promotes peace, trade, development, and democracy. More generally, how is educational system going to help ensure that the next time we decide to intervene somewhere, we’re better prepared, we have more people available with language skills, cultural knowledge etc.

Gulliver: We’re spending billions of dollars a year trying to stand up and increase the capacity and capabilities of foreign security forces, and we really, fundamentally have no idea what we’re doing. The U.S. military knows how to translate weapon systems into capabilities with concepts, doctrine, training, TTPs, and so on, and then how to translate those capabilities into operational effectiveness; we don’t know how to teach a foreign partner to do this with any degree of consistency or effectiveness, and often the obstacles will be obscure and inaccessible to us. What’s worse is that we talk like we can do this in our sleep, and our senior leaders seem snowed enough by it to imagine that security force assistance is more about the sculptor than it is the clay. We’re a blind guy with four broken fingers trying to build the David out of tin foil and pebbles.

12. What's the most meaningful and effective foreign/security policy action Obama could take before 2012?

Lil: I think probably starting to increase capacity at State and USAID.

Gulliver: Predictable, but: withdraw the vast majority of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. It’s a shit sandwich, I know, but it’s one you’re gonna have to eat – letting it get cold isn’t going to make it taste better.

Overall F/SP Grade at mid-term?

Alma: There were some disappointments, but diplomatic efforts were made towards Muslims, the President handled well the McChrystal affair, and no outrageously wrong-headed foreign policy decision was made so far--a drastic change from the previous administration. So I think Obama's self-attributed grade of B+ is, overall, a rather fair one.

The president’s encouragingly pragmatic approach to our most important relationships and obvious willingness to manage the rise of global competitors have been outweighed by the lost promise of major national security reform and the disappointing cave-in on Afghanistan. I give the administration a D+.


  1. We’re spending billions of dollars a year trying to stand up and increase the capacity and capabilities of foreign security forces, and we really, fundamentally have no idea what we’re doing.

    Ding, ding, ding!!!!

    I'd say the same is true of the large majority of our technocratic-elite-military-governmental-domestic-bureaucratic-foreign-policy-complex's conventional wisdoms.

    Try saying that three times in a row.

    We are on intellectual autopilot as a society - certainly our technocratic elite are - and what do we do?

    Spend more money! Write more longer bills! Lecture other countries about everything under the sun! Train other people's armies when we don't know what the armies will be used for in the future! Appoint domestic Czars who will solve all our problems via memo.

    Crazy man.

    I feel like courtneyme aka GSGF. Sometimes regular English just doesn't cut it.

    Oh, how would I grade Obama-Bush?

    I dunno. I never expect anything from politicians. A C overall?

  2. On a more serious note, I'm completely appalled.

    When you don't know what you are doing then it's time to stop pretending you are a Master of the Universe.

    We are not Masters of the Universe and our technocratic elite and military industrial complexes don't understand that the prediction business is dismal, the knowledge problem exists, and the laws of unintended consequences exist to kick our friggin ass.

    Sorry. I'm so frustrated I could scream.

    A pox big government conservatism a la Mr. Bush and a pox on big government conventional wisdoms a la Mr. Obama.

    And, by the way, I don't mean to wish a pox on either personally. I wish only the best for both men. I just don't agree with their political philosophies which are eerily similar: that we Masters of the Universe can solve all problems everywhere all the time as long as we throw enough troops or money at it.

    Bah! Middle aged grumpy Madhu says bah humbug!

    Hope you all are doing well, Ink Spots youngsters.

    You really are a joy to read.

  3. By the standards of modern colleges, you can't possibly give them less than a B. Grade inflation is a threat beyond the dreams of AQAP.

  4. Not a mention of Israel/Palestine, anyone remember Obama's first overseas trip, the Cairo speech?

    Obama talked a great game in Cairo, but he ran into the reality of Bibi Netanyahu and his lobby on Capitol Hill. I can't forget Joe Biden's trip to Israel with Biden talking about "no space" between us and Israel, and then Bibi kicking him in the nuts with an announcement of new settlements on Palestinian land.

    Obama gets a huge cowardly F on this subject.