Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Obama’s First 100 Days: Mixed Record on Foreign Policy

Cato foreign policy experts weigh in on President Obama’s record in his first 100 days:

Christopher Preble, Director Foreign Policy Studies:

President Obama deserves credit for making a few modest changes in U.S. foreign and defense policy, and he has signaled a desire to make more fundamental shifts in the future. Some of these may prove helpful, while others are likely to encounter problems. In the end, however, so long as the president is unwilling to revisit some of the core assumptions that have guided U.S grand strategy for nearly two decades – chief among these the conceit that the United States is the world’s indispensable nation, and that we must take the lead in resolving all the world’s problems – then he will be unable to effect the broad changes that are truly needed.

Ted Galen Carpenter, Vice President Defense & Foreign Policy Studies; Christopher Preble:

On the plus side, Obama moved quickly to fulfill his most important foreign policy promise: ending the war in Iraq. That said, the policy that his administration will implement is consistent with the agreement that the outgoing Bush administration negotiated with the Iraqis. Given that the war has undermined U.S. security interests, and our continuing presence there is costly and counterproductive, Obama should have proposed to remove U.S. troops on a faster timetable.

Malou Innocent, Foreign Policy Analyst:

The jury is still out on the other major, ongoing military operation, the war in Afghanistan. That mission is directly related to events in neighboring Pakistan, which is serving – and has served – as a safe haven for Taliban supporters for years. President Obama deserves credit for approaching the problem with both countries together, and also in a regional context, which includes Iran, as well as India. Still unknown is the scope and scale of the U.S. commitment. President Obama has approved a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan. Some have suggested that still more troops are needed, and that these additional troop numbers might prevail for 10-15 years. That would be a mistake. The United States should be looking for ways to increase the capacity of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to confront the extremism in their countries, and should not allow either to grow dependent upon U.S. military and financial support.

Christopher Preble and Ted Galen Carpenter:

On Iran, President Obama made the right decision by agreeing to join the P5 + 1 negotiations, but that is only a first step. The two sides are far apart and President Obama has not signaled his intentions if negotiations fail to produce a definitive breakthrough. Sanctions have had a very uneven track record, and are unlikely to succeed in convincing the Iranians to permanently forego uranium enrichment. If the Iranians are intent upon acquiring nuclear weapons, military action would merely delay Iran ’s program, and would serve in the meantime to rally support for an otherwise unpopular clerical regime, and a manifestly incompetent president.

Doug Bandow, Senior Fellow; Christopher Preble:

A related problem is North Korea’s ongoing nuclear program, an area where the president and his team seem to be grasping for answers. President Obama was mistaken if he believed that that the UN Security Council would render a meaningful response to Pyongyang’s provocative missile launch. It was naive, at best, for him to believe that even a strong rebuke from the UNSC would have altered Kim Jong Il’s behavior. The president must directly engage China, the only country with any significant influence over Kim. The North’s reckless and unpredictable behavior does not serve Beijing’s interests.

Benjamin Friedman, Research Fellow; Christopher Preble:

Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are correct to apply greater scrutiny to bloated Pentagon spending, and to terminating unnecessary weapon systems, but the budget will actually grow slightly, at a time when we should be looking for ways to trim spending. If President Obama decided to avoid Iraq-style occupations, we could cut our ground forces in half. If we stopped planning for near-term war with China or Russia, the Air Force and Navy could be much smaller. Unless we commit to a grand strategy of restraint, and encourage other countries to provide for their own defense, it will be impossible to make the large-scale cuts in military spending that are needed.

Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies; Benjamin Friedman; Christopher Preble:

Two other quick points. President Obama has moved away from some of the overheated rhetoric surrounding counterterrorism and homeland security, including dropping the phrase ‘War on Terror”. This was the right approach. The language surrounding the fight against terrorism is as important – if not more important – than the actual fight itself. Equally useful is his pledge to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and his renunciation of the use of torture and other illegal means in the first against al Qaeda. These steps send an important message to audiences outside of the United States who cooperation is essential.

Ian Vasquez, Director, Center for Global Liberty & Prosperity; Juan Carlos Hidalgo, Project Coordinator for Latin America.

President Obama has signaled a slight change on US-Cuba policy by softening some travel and financial restrictions. It is not as far as we would have liked, but it is a step in the right direction – toward greater engagement, as opposed to more isolation, which was the approach adopted by the Bush administration.

For more research, check out Cato’s foreign policy and national security page.

Poor Situation Management

Part of controlling the damage from disasters, terrorists attacks, and other national public incidents is controlling public reaction. So it is with the current swine flu “public health emergency.” So far, there have been twenty confirmed cases of swine flu in the United States.

In terms of managing reaction, there’s good and bad in the following quote from this morning’s Washington Post: “ ‘Clearly we all have individual responsibility for dealing with this situation,’ said deputy national security adviser John O. Brennan.”

The good: Brennan is correct on the merits. Controlling flu is mostly a matter of good hygiene.

The bad: A deputy national security adviser should not give quotes about flu outbreaks to a national newspaper. His title circumscribes his responsibilities, and he conveys wrongly by speaking about the matter that a (still largely potential) swine flu outbreak is a national security event. It is not under any reasonable definition of the phrase “national security.”

Just like the U.S. president shouldn’t be perceived as occupying himself with pirates off the Somali coast - the administration handled that situation well - a national security adviser should not weigh in on an inchoate outbreak of flu.

The result from suggesting that the flu affects national security could be more damage than the outbreak itself: canceled travel, reduced trade and commerce, pulling kids from school, staying home from work. An infantilized country is a weaker country, not a safer one.

Pundit Predilection: Reading a Lot into a Little

American policymakers have a tendency to ignore the viewpoints of other nations.  Such was the case when Gen. David Petraeus complained that Pakistan saw India rather than the Taliban as the more significant security threat.  I made the simple but still important (in my view, anyway) point that Pakistan had reason to fear India, including the latter’s role in detaching East Pakistan from what had been a geographically divided state.

Yet there appears to be predilection by some pundits  to read a lot into a short blog post.  Matthew Yglesias apparently believes that to point to India’s role in the 1971 war is to gloss over Pakistan’s ignoble conduct in what became Bangladesh.  Others may have seen “a happy Pakistan bouncing along” until victimized by a “rapacious” India, but my post said nothing of the sort.  In fact, in contrast to Mr. Yglesias, I was alive during the war and remember stories about Pakistani atrocities. 

 Nevertheless, the point remains:  there is a reason leading Pakistanis fears India more than the Taliban and other extremists.  And lecturing them that they are misguided, that Pakistan’s artificial geographic and social configuration was doomed and that the Khan government’s brutality gave India good cause for intervening, is not likely to change the current threat assessment of those in power, especially in the military.  So the point remains:  Washington policymakers have to deal with rather than dismiss Islamabad’s fears.

Update on Roxana Saberi

saberiRoxana Saberi

For readers interested in the ongoing case of Roxana Saberi, an American journalist imprisoned in Iran on highly dubious charges, this sad story will get you up to date.  After having given unofficial indications that she would be released shortly, the Iranian government sentenced Saberi to 8 years in prison on April 18.  She is now apparently 5 days into a hunger strike.  Trita Parsi runs down some informed speculation about the relationship between the upcoming Iranian elections, the U.S.-Iran situation, and Saberi’s arrest here.

Please keep Roxana in your thoughts and prayers.   Evin prison is bad news, and she doesn’t belong there.

The Problem with the EU in Afghanistan

President Barack Obama, like President George W. Bush before him, has gone hat-in-hand to the Europeans to request (beg?) for more troops for Afghanistan.  Alas, the European governments gave him the back of their collective hand:  they may like President Obama more than his predecessor, but that doesn’t mean they, or their peoples, want to do any more in Afghanistan.

But then, it’s not clear that getting more European troops would help much.  Reports the (Australia) Herald Sun:

When asked by the Britons to attack Afghan rebels, the commander of a [Czech] special operations unit (SOG) said “we’re not going to, it’s dangerous,” then ordered his men to get in trucks and return to the base.

On another occasion, an SOG commander decided that the task the Britons had set ran counter to the unit’s mission.

Yet another time, a commander said he could not help as his soldiers were on vacation.

“I find it hard to recover from the news I get about this unit. It harms the reputation of the army,” Czech Defence Minister Vlasta Parkanova told the daily.

Some help.

Obviously, some European troops, including Czechs, fight hard and well.  But most of the countries deploy their forces to ensure that they don’t have to fight.  NATO provides precious few benefits for America in Europe or elsewhere.  After 60 years, the U.S. should leave NATO to the Europeans.

Does Transparency Inspire Terrorism?

The debate over the Obama administration’s release of the torture memos took an important turn during the past week, as reflected in discussions on the Sunday morning shows.

The economy was the lead story on Fox News Sunday, but in the second segment Chris Wallace led his questioning of Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) as follows:

The Pentagon now says that it’s going to release hundreds of photos of alleged abuse of detainees by U.S. personnel - this, after, of course, the release of the interrogation memos. Senator Bond, how serious is the threat of a backlash in the Middle East and the recruitment of more terrorists, possibly endangering U.S. soldiers in that part of the world?

Revelation! The idea that abusive practices on the part of the United States would draw people to the side of its enemies.

In the media, most of the debate up to now has centered on the tactical question of whether torture works, and to some degree the moral dimension. (Here’s David Rittgers on the former and Chris Preble on the latter.)

There’s an ineluctable conclusion from understanding that torture drives recruitment which endangers our soldiers: It is strategic error to engage in abusive practices. Abuse on the part of the United States adds heads to the hydra.

But wait. Wallace’s question may imply that it is release of the photos - not commission of the underlying offenses - that risks causing a backlash. This cannot be.

Given the governments they’ve long experienced, people in the Muslim and Arab worlds will generally assume the worst from what they know - and assume that even more than what they know is being hidden. Transparency about U.S. abuses cuts against that narrative and confuses the story that the United States is an abuser akin to the governments Arabs and Muslims have known.

Abusive practices create backlash against the United States. Transparency about abuses after the fact will dispel backlash and muddy the terrorist narrative about the United States and its role in the Middle East.

As the question turns to prosecution of wrongdoing by U.S. officials, such as lawyers who warped the law beyond recognition to justify torture, transparent application of the rule of law in this area would further disrupt a terrorist narrative about the United States.

Solving Our Problem in Pakistan

Pakistan has nuclear weapons, an active jihadist movement, a weak civilian government, a history of backing the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a military focused on fighting another American ally, India.  Pakistan probably is harder than Iraq to “fix.”

Unfortunately, the gulf between the U.S. and Pakistani governments is vast.  Starting with the respective assessments of the greatest regional threat, Gen. David Petraeus has given Islamabad some unwanted advice.  Reports AP News:

The United States is urging Pakistan’s military to focus more on the Taliban and extremists advancing inside their borders instead of the nation’s longtime enemy — India.

The top U.S. commander in the region told Congress Friday that extremists already inside Pakistan pose the greatest threat to that nation.

Gen. David Petraeus (pet-TRAY’-uhs) was asking a House Appropriations subcommittee for funding to help the Pakistani military root out and stop insurgents, saying he wants Pakistani leaders to realize they need to learn how to fight internal extremists.

Petraeus called India a “conventional threat” that should no longer be Pakistan’s top military focus.

Gen. Petraeus is obviously right, from America’s standpoint.  But try explaining that to Pakistan, which has fought and lost three wars with India.  Indeed, Pakistan was dismembered in one of those conflicts, leading to the creation of Bangladesh.

Enlisting Pakistan more fully in combating the Taliban and al Qaeda will require recognizing, not dismissing, Islamabad’s other security concerns.  Squaring the circle won’t be easy.  But doing so will require more creative diplomacy and less preemptive demands, more regional cooperation and less military escalation.