Tag: U.S. foreign policy

Has President Obama Given up on Changing U.S. Foreign Policy?

Today in Politico I have an op-ed titled “How Washington changed Obama.” In the piece, I argue that the recent appointments of Leon Panetta as secretary of defense and Gen. David Petraeus as director of the CIA, combined with revelations in the recent New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza, suggest that President Obama has given up on changing U.S. foreign and defense policy:

Panetta is a dubious choice to fulfill Obama’s recent pledge to trim military spending. Any secretary charged with realizing that pledge would need extraordinary credibility with Capitol Hill Republicans, many of whom are determined to continue raining money on the Pentagon regardless of the nation’s parlous fiscal position. Despite having once been a Republican, Panetta ran for Congress as Democrat and has served prominently in Democratic administrations. He is unlikely to craft the pragmatic consensus needed to give the Pentagon a haircut.

Petraeus’s nomination poses a different problem. He has spent the past decade focused— at the behest of his commanders in chief —  on what we used to call the “global war on terrorism.” But is U.S. nation-building in the Muslim world the most important national security and intelligence problem we face today?


The U.S. desperately needs to change its focus. We account for roughly half the world’s military spending, yet we feel terribly insecure. We infantilize our allies so that they won’t pay to defend themselves and instead allow us to do it for them. We stumble into small- and medium-sized foreign quagmires the way many people eat breakfast — frequently and without much thought.

Read the rest of the op-ed here.

Cross-posted at The National Interest.

Appointment of Panetta and Petraeus Signals More of the Same

The report that Leon Panetta will be appointed Secretary of Defense, and Gen. David Petraeus will become the new CIA director, does not come as a huge surprise. But I worry that President Obama’s decision to fill these positions from within his administration signals an unwillingness to rethink U.S. foreign policy. Such a reevaluation is desperately needed.

Leon Panetta brings some experience in national security affairs to DoD, including his stints at CIA and on Capitol Hill, and as a member of the Iraq Study Group. His more relevant experience, however, may be as Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton administration. Bob Gates effectively shielded the Pentagon from spending cuts, but that merely postponed the reckoning that Panetta will have to confront.

Considerable cuts, beyond even the $400 billion-over-12-year target that President Obama announced earlier this month, will require a fundamental rethinking of the military’s role, something that Gates was unwilling to do. It remains to be seen whether Panetta will tackle this challenge, or whether he will defer to others within the administration.

A new role for the military and the United States would shed unnecessary missions, and relieve some of the burdens on our troops. In all likelihood, such a change must be directed from the Oval Office, not the Pentagon.

The appointment of Petraeus to head the CIA is puzzling. I worry that the appointment of a military officer to lead a civilian agency raises questions about Obama’s faith in senior leaders from within the CIA who might have moved into the top role.

The agency has questioned some of the rosier predictions of impending success in Afghanistan, and I hope that Petraeus’s move to Langley doesn’t result in a change of those candid assessments. More generally, Petraeus has focused nearly all of his energies over the past nine years trying to perfect the U.S. military’s ability to fight wars that most Americans now wisely oppose. His insights into future opportunities and challenges is unclear. We should be putting these wars that sap our nation’s strength and undermine our security in the country’s rearview mirror. Instead, Petraeus appears committed to a long-term nation-building mission in Afghanistan, and others like it.

Rep. Ryan’s Budget Avoids Cuts to Military Spending

For all the boldness of Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposal to reduce projected federal expenditures by $6 trillion, an initiative that I support, the Pentagon’s budget emerges essentially unscathed in Ryan’s plan. This is a mistake on both fiscal and strategic grounds. Significant cuts in military spending must be on the table as the nation struggles to close its fiscal gap without saddling individuals and businesses with burdensome taxes and future generations with debt. Such cuts will also force a reappraisal of our military’s roles and missions that is long overdue.

The Pentagon’s base budget has nearly doubled during the past decade. Throw in the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus nuclear weapons spending in the Department of Energy, and a smattering of other programs, and the total amount that Americans spend annually on our military exceeds $700 billion. These costs might come down slightly as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are drawn to a close – as they should be – but according to the Obama administration’s own projections, the U.S. government will still spend nearly $6.5 trillion on the military over the next decade. Surely Rep. Ryan could have found a way to cut…something from this amount?

Defense is an undisputed core function of government – any government – and spending for that purpose should not be treated on an equal basis with the many other dubious roles and missions that the U.S. federal government now performs. But please note the emphasis. The U.S. Department of Defense should be focused on that purpose: defending the United States. But by acting as the world’s de facto policeman, we have essentially twisted the concept of “the common defence” to include the defense of the whole world, including billions of people who are not parties to our unique social contract.

The rest of the world is more than content to free ride on Uncle Sam’s largesse. Absolved of their core obligation to provide for the defense of their own citizens, the governments in other countries have been busy expanding the social welfare state and growing the public sector. The true burdens fall on U.S. taxpayers who spend two and a half times more on national security programs than do the French or the British, five times more than citizens living in other NATO countries, and seven and a half times more than the average Japanese. Meanwhile, our troops and their families are struggling to cover the many commitments that their civilian leaders have unwisely incurred. And yet the defenders of the status quo – those who prefer that Americans pay these costs and bear these burdens – cry for more. More money and more missions.

Fiscal hawks such as Ryan are not serious if they cannot see massive waste and inefficiency in the Pentagon. Robert Gates’ ballyhooed reforms barely scratch the surface of the problem. Mismanagement of major weapons programs is rampant; cost overruns are the norm. A meaningful cap on future defense expenditures will force the Pentagon to seriously confront these inefficiencies, and might also precipitate some useful competition between the services on who is best positioned to keep the country safe and secure.

If Washington is serious about cutting spending, and if the Pentagon’s budget is included in the search for savings, then we need to adopt a different strategy, one that would husband our resources, focus the military on a few core missions, call on other countries to take responsibility for their own defense, and share the burdens of policing the global commons. A serious proposal for reining in runaway Pentagon spending would have precipitated such a strategic shift. By giving the Pentagon a free pass, Rep. Ryan practically ensures that such a discussion never sees the light of day.

Cross-posted at The National Interest.

Protests in Afghanistan: Our Excuse to Get Out

General David Petraeus, the head of American forces in Afghanistan, has emphasized the importance of winning the “hearts and minds” of Afghans by treating them and their culture with respect. Pentagon officials may want to reexamine that assumption, but not for the reason you might think.

Evangelical pastor Terry Jones, author of the book Islam Is of the Devil and head of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, two weeks ago carried through on his promise to “stand up” to Islam and burn a Quran. In response, crowds demonstrated in cities across Afghanistan, with a mob in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif storming a United Nations compound, killing eight non-American aid workers and beheading two of them.

The message from the protests is clear: this is war. Nevertheless, moral ambiguities emerge. When backed by over 130,000 International Security Assistance Force troops and close to 300,000 Afghan National Security Forces operating under foreign command, how are civilian aid workers being perceived by local Afghans? In the minds of the protesters, what crimes were they committing if they genuinely believed that they were defending their religious traditions and customs from infidels occupying their country? None of this should imply that the Quran burning or the grisly violence meted out against innocent aid workers was justified. If anything, they epitomize the war in Afghanistan’s two major problems.

First, they illustrate the discrepancy between the war of perceptions being waged abroad and the fearsome “Islamic menace” that our elected leaders continue to exploit back at home. Second, and perhaps more important, these incidents demonstrate the danger of America trying to forcibly export its liberal values onto illiberal societies.

U.S. policymakers have long believed that people around the world both want to adopt America’s liberal values, institutions, and practices, and that they should embrace them because those values embody the most enlightened and most civilized way of thinking. This universalist belief was aptly summarized by President George W. Bush in his 2002 West Point speech: “Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place…When it comes to the common rights and needs of men and women, there is no clash of civilizations.”

This way of thinking is profoundly flawed. The notion that moral truths should be singularly interpreted implicitly denies the differences between cultures. As prominent political science scholar Kenneth Waltz writes: “The powerful state may, and the United States does, think of itself as acting for the sake of peace, justice, and well-being in the world. But these terms will be defined to the liking of the powerful, which may conflict with the preferences and the interests of others.”

To argue that moral truths and values are the same in every culture allows policymakers to avoid serious questions about the consequences of intervention, including the inherent constraints of operating within a foreign culture. Even simple issues like the burqa—a billowy garment that covers a woman from head to toe—are still misunderstood in America. Whatever one thinks about the burqa (a symbol of oppression, institutionalized intolerance, etc.), it is more than a mere item of clothing; it reflects the ultra-conservative societal norms in which Afghan women live, many of whom do not have the freedom to look and act however they want.

Many well-meaning Americans believe that the United States, with its commitment to individual rights, political and religious freedom, and the rule of law, has a unique role to play in advancing Afghan human rights But the freedom Americans champion also entails one’s freedom to dissent. Does the West have the moral authority to punish Afghan traditionalists who reject our imposition of social transformation? What happens when attempts to reshape Afghan customs and belief systems incite violent rebellions, as they recently did in Mazar?

Recent events in Afghanistan should be a wake-up call to how our 10-year occupation is actually being perceived. Rather than winning “hearts and minds,” America’s civilizing mission has become increasingly associated with a Western cultural invasion.

Intervention and Its Unintended Consequences

The killing of four Americans by Somali pirates earlier this month has brought the troubled African country into the news once again. With the White House’s response to unrest in the Middle East continuing to evolve, it is instructive to note how the United States has tried and failed multiple times to bring order to Somalia. The policies Washington has pursued and the unintended consequences they have produced should serve as a valuable lesson to any intervention that might be considered in Libya or elsewhere in the region.  Over at The Skeptics, I outline a number of these lessons after briefly examining the history of U.S. intervention in Somalia:

No doubt U.S. leaders had the best of intentions. But their noble attempts to rescue Somalia spawned a number of unintended consequences. Over the past two years, as many as 20 Somali-American men have disappeared from the Minneapolis area. Many fear these men were recruited to fight alongside al-Shabab, or “the youth,” the militant wing of the Islamist Somali government overthrown in 2006. In describing Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized American of the Somali diaspora who is believed to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide bombing, FBI director Robert Mueller said, “It appears that this individual was radicalized in his hometown in Minnesota.”

…it is well past time for American leaders to thoroughly explore the notion that U.S. policies contribute directly to radicalization. Reigning in the West’s interventionist foreign policy will not eliminate the number of people and organizations that seek to commit terrorist attacks, but will certainly diminish it.

In this respect, terrorism can no longer be attributed to ignorance and poverty—conditions that exist in foreign conflict zones, but in and of themselves do not generate attacks against the West. Viewing poverty and underdevelopment as an underlying cause of extremism makes the mistake of stereotyping terrorists and their grievances.  It also commits the error of ignoring the unintended consequences of past actions and very real dangers right within our borders.

Click here to read the full post.