The president Obama at West Point: Half the ideas, half the calories
The president at West Point: Half the ideas, half the calories
Posted By David Rothkopf Monday, May 24, 2010 - 6:45 PM Share
If the graduation speech the president delivered at West Point this weekend was indeed intended -- as it was touted to be -- as a preview of the President's national security strategy, you should be able to find that when it released later this week in the diet section of your supermarket in the section for "Foreign Policy Lite."
Apparently the Obama team still seems to think that defining a policy that is different from George W. Bush's is enough. Or offering pallid echoes of the policies Bill Clinton articulated almost 20 years ago is enough.
By all means, let's have democracy and human rights. Let's practice diplomacy. Let's save those who are less fortunate. Let's have strong international institutions. Hard to argue with any of it, to be sure. However, whomever was the author of the speech seems not to understand the difference between hopes and policies, between what might be nice and what might be possible, between what the public might accept from a candidate and by what the public minimally demands of a president.
This, by the way, is hardly a call for Bush-ism. Quite the contrary, I think the last element of the enormous damage Bush did with his reckless, irresponsible and in several circumstances illegal policies and actions was setting the bar so low for his successors that they can effectively roll out of bed and clear it. But taking a strong stand against unilaterally violating the sovereign borders of another country on the basis of flimsy, fabricated pretexts or boldly opposing torture or the alienation of a billion people on the planet based only on their religious beliefs is not a foreign policy revolution. It is nothing more than returning to our senses.
And of course, as writers at the Times and the Post have noted in summarizing the speech, in several areas even the impossible-to-argue-with core idea of moving away from the policies of George W. Bush offers less than meets the eye with deadlines for withdrawing from the Middle East, goals for shutting down Guantanamo and big talk about less callous disregard of the constitution when it comes to handling terrorists all shifting off into an ever more uncertain future.
The focus on democracy is noble -- but is, as ever, a Potemkin policy that won't stand up to scrutiny. The place where Obama is investing most American lives and dollars, Afghanistan, is a place in which democracy has been deeply compromised and shows no signs of being transformed under our watch. (The only real boldness in the speech was the president's looking West Point graduates in the eye and suggesting that asking them to put their lives on the line in Afghanistan was anything other than an exercise in callous futility.) Elsewhere, Iraqi democracy is deeply flawed. Our critical partners in our various national security undertakings include the likes of non-democratic China, faux-democratic Russia and oppressive states in the Middle East. Indeed, one of the core contradictions in the President's cited priorities is that while we may wish to promote democracy the new partnerships we ought to be fostering will largely be with non-democratic nations.
The president correctly said we need to grow stronger at home to lead in the world. But the administration has fostered burgeoning deficits and has shown precious little impulse beyond the mandatory convening of commissions to actually do the three things that are essential to fixing our problems at home: creating a new source of revenue (a value-added tax), cutting defense spending and cutting entitlement spending. The first test of whether a president is a real leader and truly wants a strong America is how directly he or she addresses these vital needs. Avoiding them is whistling past the graveyard. The lines about innovation at home are starting to ring pretty hollow as comprehensive climate reform looks ever less likely and promises like doubling exports are not actually supported by little things like the remotest semblance of a trade policy.
The president said we need to build international institutions. But what that means is we need to selectively but clearly give up our dominant role in them, be willing to let foreigners make decisions to which we adhere, give the institutions true enforcement capabilities including the ability to commit troops to ensure, for example, that nuclear wannabes don't violate international law. We have made precious little material progress in any of these areas and show little inclination to do so in others. Further, we can't credibly say we're for a strong international system and then vigorously oppose, as this administration has, the kind of strong new multilateral institutions we need to, for example, regulate international financial markets or do too little to support, as this administration has, ones we desperately need like one to protect our shared global environment.
The speech also called for a renewed emphasis on diplomacy. This is what made headlines. This is news? This is an idea? Oh sure, I'm sure **** Cheney is grumbling in his cave somewhere before biting the head off a baby goat. But suggesting that focusing on diplomacy is anything like an idea is ridiculous. Foreign policy should use every tool available at our disposal from diplomacy to economic leverage to force. The key is using it effectively... and thus far, to pick one example, the administration's most prominent use of diplomacy, the Iran case, is moving too slowly and seems almost certain not to work. The key here is that we don't determine whether diplomacy is the right tool, the other guy has a role in this too and diplomacy without the credible threat of alternatives is just a conversation.
The president has given some great or at least very good speeches in his term of office -- in Cairo, in Prague, in Oslo, for example-that hinted at truly transformational policies. This was not one of them. Further, speeches like this are weakened by the fact that the record shows that Obama to date is willing only to rhetorically embrace major change. The follow up to Cairo has been negligible unless you believe weakening the relationship with Israel is the same as strengthening the relationship with the Muslim world in a meaningful way. (It's not.) The follow up to Prague -- a deal with the Russians to eliminate obsolete and unused warheads and a dog and pony show in Washington that produced no meaningful real progress at fixing our clearly broken and unraveling NPT -- has been similarly undercut by a willingness to let PR exercises suffice in the face of real meaningful efforts.
Want an innovative national security strategy? Start by living up to the promise of the president's earlier speeches rather than his recent penchant for slipping deadlines and dilutive compromises. Then recognize that we are going to have to narrow our ambitions, recognize the implications of our dwindling resources, move away from mid-century paradigms of American hegemony (or early 90s fantasies of same), find true partnerships with partners who are often rivals and often have values different from our own, establish principles wherein the use of force is not squandered on actions which have primarily domestic political goals but is available when needed, cut bureaucracy, cut duplication, recognize changing military paradigms.
America's new seeming embrace of the Predator drone as a manifestation and metaphor for the over-the-horizon, unmanned, white-collar-warfare policies we're comfortable with is shallow and deeply flawed, but at least it recognizes that the nature of warfare is changing in ways our budgets do not.
Unveiling platitudinous doctrines at a time when the country is worried because of foundering signature initiatives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and with regard to the international financial situation seems out of touch. That the situation on our border with Mexico and our relations in this hemisphere are, well, heading south... that the big relationships that we need for the future in places like China and India are evolving slowly and fitfully and without, it seems, any real vision... that hotspots like North Korea or with regard to Israel and its neighbors are deteriorating rapidly... all these things suggest that it is time to enter a new phase of Obama administration foreign policy where the focus is more on results (based on a realistic assessment of what's possible) than on aspirational rhetoric. Because right now speeches like this weekend's suggest an ominous course toward what historians may someday ruefully designate "The Era of Good Intentions."
The Robert Gates-Hillary Clinton axis
The White House likes to release images of President Barack Obama at the head of the long Situation Room conference table, sober and experienced advisers lining either side.
But there is another meeting – with no cameras and no Obama – where the Cabinet’s two most formidable figures seek to put their own stamp on the administration’s national security agenda. It is the conversation Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton try to have each week when they’re both in Washington, often in the company of National Security Adviser Jim Jones.
In an administration dominated by a powerful White House staff, Clinton and Gates have emerged as the giant exception and the only important center of gravity outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Their close relationship has been central to the unusual degree of agreement on critical issues, most notably the Afghan surge but also a range of other initiatives, from increasing the size of the State Department’s foreign aid budget to imposing new sanctions on Iran.
“It’s a phalanx,” former Pentagon official Leslie Gelb said of the Clinton-Gates alliance. “I can’t remember a really important issue where they have disagreed. They are both center-right; they have their four feet firmly planted on that ground. And that is, they are not going to open themselves up to serious attack from the right, whether it’s Iraq or Afghanistan or Iran or you name it.”
Gates, known inside the White House as “Yoda,” is unquestionably the most powerful member of the Obama Cabinet — the only one with the muscle to push back. Clinton, meanwhile, is the most popular, her approval ratings cruising well above Obama’s own. An alliance is good for each of them.
Clinton saves Gates from political isolation as a Republican in a Democratic administration and has signed on to a policy agenda he has set, adding her voice to his demands for more troops and her department’s civilian resources to the war in Afghanistan.
Gates, for his part, has saved Clinton from a different kind of marginalization by a powerful White House staff, which has a sometimes-rocky relationship with her own staff of loyalists, a residue of thebitter 2008 campaign. He’s offered her a potent back channel to power and — some of her most political allies have told other Democrats — a path forward inside the administration.
Gates, who has long signaled an eagerness to retire, just launched what appears to be his final initiative, a tough push to scale back the Pentagon’s gargantuan bureaucracy. Clinton, with her hawkish image and ties to Gates and to military brass, would be his most logical successor — and some of her most senior allies have begun quietly to float the notion.
The two meet regularly, though talk of weekly lunches was disrupted by the aggressive travel schedules both keep. They most recently lunched together April 26 at the State Department, a source said, but meet almost weekly, along with Jones, at the White House. The two are said to be personally compatible. Both, one source noted, are Midwestern United Methodists.
Connecticut Rep. John Larson, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Gates and Clinton have briefed the caucus three times together and present a united front. “The overlap and the ease which they transition from point to point — very notable,” he said. “We have all Cabinet members move through the caucus. It’s not always so notable that they transition from point to point, seamlessly and are on the same page.”
Such a close alliance between the two leading members of a modern president’s Cabinet is hardly typical.
“A lot of presidents have had to spend quite a bit of time adjudicating disputes between the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom,” said Strobe Talbott, a State Department official under President Bill Clinton.
More often, they’re fighting their own wars. Some of the deepest intramural hatreds in American government have run across the Potomac, a tradition embodied most recently by Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell, secretaries of defense and state in the administration of President George W. Bush, who famously did not get along.
“My sense is that each of them understands the way in which the other one’s function can help advance the cause,” said Talbott. “Bob Gates totally understands the need for a very proactive and well-funded development policy in order to keep weak states from becoming failed states.”
The relationship is, indeed, part of a pattern for Gates, one that’s made him one of the most successful and enduring government officials of the past half-century. A career CIA analyst who served as deputy national security adviser under Brent Scowcroft in the George H.W. Bush White House before becoming the first career officer to lead the spy agency, Gates spent 13 years in academia before being named Rumsfeld’s successor in 2006.
Still, those who know Gates worried that after Obama made the surprise decision to keep him on at the Pentagon, he would inevitably be an outlier in a Democratic administration. But the quick bond he formed with Hillary Clinton and others were part of a familiar strategy.
“He’s by nature an alliance builder,” said a senior official from the Bush and Clinton administrations.
Gates did not have a relationship with George W. Bush either when he took over from Rumsfeld in 2006. But he had worked with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley, Rice’s successor as national security adviser during Bush’s administration. That helped him get along in the Cabinet, and he didn’t stop there.
In contrast to Rumsfeld, who was dismissive of Capitol Hill, Gates courted key members of Congress, particularly Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. After Levin brought up concerns about confirming Marine Gen. Peter Pace for a second two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gates pulled back on the nomination.
He has followed that pattern in the Obama administration. When Jones was taking knocks in the press for being less powerful than his top deputies, Gates called on Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, to defend Jones — a fellow supporter of the military and someone in his age bracket — as “the glue that holds this team together,” a dexterous bit of politics that allowed him to do Jones a favor while simultaneous capitalizing on what’s perceived as his bureaucratic weakness.
Some of Gates’s admirers see the relationship with Hillary Clinton in a similar light and argue that he’s been able to use her to achieve his policy goals — and not vice versa.
“The reality is that no one, including the White House, is willing to cross Gates because we desperately need him for political cover on everything, whether it be defense budget reform, arms control or[Afghanistan and Pakistan] and Iraq,” said a Democratic foreign policy hand, challenging a reporter to “name me one issue where [Clinton] had a strong viewpoint and then successfully maneuvered the administration in her direction.”
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell dismissed the notion that Gates has used Clinton to his advantage as “complete nonsense.”
“Is this a mutually beneficial relationship? Sure, everyone benefits when the secretaries of state and defense have a good working relationship. Are they using each other to advance personal agendas? Absolutely not,” he said. “They happen to be very like-minded on many issues. She is, as he often says, very ‘tough-minded’ — and he respects that about her. I know it’s not very juicy, but there’s no secret alliance here. The fact is they simply see eye to eye more often than not.”
Clinton, too, has experience in navigating the highest levels and of building unlikely alliances.
“This replicates one of her most effective moves in the Senate, which was to figure out who the power brokers were, study up on them and make sure she could work effectively with them,” said Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, a Democratic group.
And if Gates has been a behind-the-scenes architect of policy, Clinton’s role is more public: She is “one of the articulators of the overall strategy that we adopted” on Iran and China, Jones recently told Newsweek.
Some critics of Obama’s policy, though, see the two hawks as having pulled the president to the right. The two were particularly instrumental in making the case internally for an Afghan troop surge, and they were close enough to sell it jointly, appearing together on television to defend the plan.
Just last week, Clinton and Gates testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to validate the administration’s commitment to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal, and to preserve the ability to design new warhead components if needed.
The administration’s stance was a victory for Gates, as the Pentagon appears to have fought hard to keep the nuclear capacity — reportedly over the objections of other members of the administration’s inner circle, including Vice President Joe Biden.
Ironically, close observers say, the chief diplomat has emerged, if anything, as blunter and more hawkish than the diplomatic secretary of defense. After an attempted bombing in New York’s Times Square appeared to have links to the Pakistani Taliban, Clinton publicly warned of “very severe consequences” should an attack be traced back to Pakistan.
Gates took a far milder line.
“It’s their country,” he said. “They remain in the driver’s seat, and they have their foot on the accelerator.”
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Clinton, Gates urge Senate to back nuclear deal with Russia
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) June 17, 2010
US President Barack Obama's
administration urged the Senate Thursday to back a new nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, telling Republicans the pact would not undermine US missile defense plans.
"From the very beginning of the negotiations, this administration has been very clear. This treaty limits strategic offensive nuclear arms, not missile defenses," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Senate hearing.
"We share a strong belief that the new start treaty will make our country more secure and we urge the Senate to ratify it expeditiously."
Clinton and other key members of Obama's administration argued before the Senate Armed Services Committee for ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), signed with Russia on April 8.
Russia has said it reserves the right to withdraw from the treaty if Washington presses ahead with missile defense systems in Europe in a way that Moscow opposes.
Republican Senator John McCain said the Russian statements are "bound to be worrisome to anyone" and sounded unconvinced by explanations offered by Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"It's clear from many statements that the Russian leadership has made that there is a very different interpretation of this treaty, from what has been stated here, concerning the connection to missile defense systems and that of the Russians," he said.
But Clinton said the statement made by Russia "does not limit or constrain our missile defense efforts."
"Indeed, a US unilateral statement makes it clear that, quote, 'our missile defense systems are not intended to affect the strategic balance with Russia,'" she said.
The administration has stated that the United States plans to improve and deploy missile defense systems to defend against a limited attack, and not against Russia's vast arsenal, Clinton and Gates told the panel.
Moscow has always opposed US missile defense projects, dating back to the 1970s, said Gates, a former CIA analyst and agency director.
"The Russians can say what they want, if it's not in the treaty, it's not binding on the United States," he said.
But Gates said even Russia's unilateral statement "hedged," giving Moscow the option to accept US missile defense weaponry if it is not aimed at Russia's nuclear force.
Under the new pact, each nation will be allowed a maximum of 1,550 deployed warheads, about 30 percent lower than a limit set in 2002.
They are also restricted to 700 air, ground and submarine-launched nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles.
But Republicans have cautioned they will oppose the pact if they think it will hamper US missile defense.
Treaty ratification needs 67 votes, but Democrats and their two independent allies hold only 59 seats in the 100-member Senate, meaning they will need to rally at least eight Republicans to their side.
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