Before the Debate, What You Need To Know about Progressive Foreign Policy
On Monday President Obama and Governor Romney will hold their final debate of this campaign season, and the only one dedicated to national security and foreign policy. National security issues and the so-called commander-in-chief test have served voters as a surrogate for broader questions about leadership and vision, even in an election year dominated by economic issues. Underneath the current affairs questions will be a set of popular, effective policies, which in four years have become the mainstream American expectation on national security. They proceed from two basic touchstones – looking forward to future challenges and what the U.S. place in a 21st-century environment significantly different from the Cold War can be; and the necessity to prioritize and make tough, strategic choices in an era of resource constraints. Today NSN sets out the core policy consequences of those two strategic choices; on Monday NSN will explore the alternatives that will underlie Monday’s debate, and their practical results to date.
Addressing today’s threats, preparing for tomorrow’s challenges. Strategic thinker David Rothkopf lays out the broad landscape: “The president came into office promising to get the United States out of a disliked war in Iraq and has kept the promise. He came in promising to shift the focus to Afghanistan and finishing the business of decapitating al Qaeda. He did both. Bin Laden is dead. And we are committed to coming home from Afghanistan, too. While the administration’s response to the first stirrings of rebellion in the Middle East — in Iran — was muddled and late, the overall approach has been constructive and the Libya chapter will stand out as a gamble that worked. Restoring relations with our European allies, engineering the ‘pivot’ in priorities to Asia cited by Secretary of State Clinton, and the recognition of the growing importance of dealing with emerging powers are all additional positive developments that are a credit to the president and his team.” [David Rothkopf, 10/20/11]
Matching spending with foreign policy appetite. In a time of fiscal constraints, America must match its spending with its strategic priorities. As Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis explains, “The debate over how much defense spending is enough should be about threats, strategy and fiscal constraints. Focusing on the specific amount of defense spending, whether measured in inflation-adjusted dollars or as a percentage of G.D.P., only serves to distract from the real strategic choices we face.” This is precisely the track the administration has taken with its defense strategy announced in January. As Dr. Nora Bensahel of the Center for a New American Security explains, “The new strategic guidance nicely balances the demands for continued U.S. global leadership with the reality of fiscal constraints. It correctly reorients U.S. military forces towards Asia, while simultaneously preparing for potential threats from the Middle East.” [Todd Harrison, 9/9/12. Nora Bensahel, 1/5/12]
Killing Osama bin Laden and taking the fight to al Qaeda leadership. John Brennan, the career CIA officer who is the White House advisor on counterterrorism explains that the raid that killed Osama bin Laden is just part of the overall success against al Qaeda: “We have affected al-Qa’ida’s ability to attract new recruits. We’ve made it harder for them to hide and transfer money, and pushed al-Qa’ida’s finances to its weakest point in years. Along with our partners, in Pakistan and Yemen, we’ve shown al-Qa’ida that it will enjoy no safe haven, and we have made it harder than ever for them to move, to communicate, to train, and to plot. Al-Qa’ida’s leadership ranks have been decimated, with more key leaders eliminated in rapid succession than at any time since 9/11. For example, al-Qa’ida’s third-ranking leader, Sheik Saeed al-Masri-killed. Ilyas Kashmiri, one of al-Qa’ida’s most dangerous commanders-reportedly killed. Operatives of AQAP in Yemen, including Ammar al-Wa’ili, Abu Ali al-Harithi, and Ali Saleh Farhan-all killed. Baitullah Mahsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban-killed. Harun Fazul, the leader of al-Qa’ida in East Africa and the mastermind of the bombings of our embassies in Africa-killed by Somali security forces. All told, over the past two and half years, virtually every major al-Qa’ida affiliate has lost its key leader or operational commander, and more than half of al-Qa’ida’s top leadership has been eliminated.” [John Brennan, 6/29/11
Disrupting plots at home. America’s law enforcement and intelligence professionals work diligently to prevent plots here at home. These civil servants have stopped dozens of plots in their tracks, most notably, the attempt by Najibullah Zazi to bomb the New York subway, called the one of the most dangerous plots since 9/11. This year, he was convicted and sentenced. The Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security also notes that homegrown plots linked to Islamic extremism have declined dramatically since 2009. [NY Times, 5/1/12. Charles Kurzman, Triangle Center, 2/8/12]
Ending the combat mission in Iraq. With U.S. combat troops fully withdrawn from Iraq last December, a campaign promise was kept and, after years of effort, a failed strategy was replaced with one that better serves core American interests. Challenges remain, but these are problems that demand Iraqi-led solutions. [NSN, 8/31/10]
Beginning transition in Afghanistan. With successes against al Qaeda and the death of Osama bin Laden, President Obama has realigned America’s commitment in Afghanistan with our interests, including withdrawing the 33,000 U.S. “surge” troops and a plan to remove all combat troops by 2014. As Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, explains, “For the past 18 months, the Obama administration has rightly pressed a strategy of transition in Afghanistan—reducing the U.S. military presence and encouraging Afghan responsibility. Recognizing that a sustainable transition also requires a political settlement among Afghanistan’s diverse factions, the administration has also sought to facilitate an Afghan peace process through outreach to insurgent elements and the Afghan government.” [Brian Katulis and Jed Ober, 8/12. NSN, 6/11]
Managing China’s rise. Nina Hachigian of the Center for American Progress and Jacob Stokes write, “The Obama administration’s approach is steady, clear-eyed, and focused on results. The administration has pushed back on China multiple times—taking China to task on unfair trade, forming a united front to get China to back down from aggressive actions in the South China Sea, and selling arms to Taiwan over furious protests from Beijing. President Obama’s Asia strategy, which is deepening partnerships and engagement in the region, is designed to ensure that as China grows it contributes to peace and stability and follows the rules of the international system. At the same time the administration does not let differences prevent the United States from working with Beijing on important joint challenges such as North Korea’s nuclear program and clean energy.” [Nina Hachigian and Jacob Stokes, 3/13/12]
Anticipating and addressing 21st century threats. The Obama administration created a CIA center for climate change and national security; appointed a cyber security coordinator to craft government policy for the threats of the digital age; and developed the National Security Space Strategy. The administration has also created critical gains in cyber capabilities. As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently announced, “The department has made significant advances in solving a problem that makes deterring cyber adversaries more complex: the difficulty of identifying the origins of that attack…Over the last two years, DoD has made significant investments in forensics to address this problem of attribution, and we’re seeing the returns on that investment.” [NPR, 12/14/09. Washington Post, 12/22/09. Department of Defense, 1/11. Defense News, 10/12/12]
Working to keep America’s promises to veterans. The Washington Monthly notes that the Obama administration “increased 2010 Department of Veterans Affairs budget by 16 percent and 2011 budget by 10 percent. Also signed new GI bill offering $78 billion in tuition assistance over a decade, and provided multiple tax credits to encourage businesses to hire veterans.” In addition, NBC recently reported, “More than 125,000 military veterans and spouses were hired or trained through a White House partnership with private businesses last year, beating an earlier goal of 100,000 by nearly a year.” [Washington Monthly, 3/12. NBC, 8/23/12]
Re-engaging with Asian allies. Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment writes, “after more than a decade of reduced U.S. attention… Japan has abandoned its flirtation with balancing its relationship with the United States and China. South Korea’s ties with the United States are stronger than ever. And Southeast Asian sentiment clearly favors the United States to continue to be a counterbalance to China’s increasingly overweening influence, welcoming its presence but also not looking for a fight with China.” That commitment applies to U.S. support for Taiwan as well. As the State Department notes, “[I]n less than two years, the Obama Administration has sold over $12 billion in arms to Taiwan. This is comparable or greater than at any other period in the history of U.S.-Taiwan unofficial relations since the enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act.” [Douglas Paal, 12/6/11. State Department, 9/21/11]
Bolstering military and intelligence ties with Israel. As Eli Lake of Newsweek reported last September, the administration has given “support that has drawn the two nations’ militaries increasingly close even as their leaders seem politely distant. The aid, U.S. and Israeli officials confirmed to Newsweek, includes the long-delayed delivery of 55 powerful GBU-28 Hard Target Penetrators, better known as bunker-buster bombs, deemed important to any future military strike against Iranian nuclear sites. It also includes a network of proposed radar sites—some located in Arab neighbors—designed to help Israel repel a missile attack, as well as joint military exercises and regular national-security consultations.” As Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak noted last August, “I can hardly remember a better period of support, American support and backing and cooperation and similar strategic understanding of events around us than what we have right now.” Unprecedented American support continues to this day. The Israeli Iron Dome anti-missile system is a case in point, “the Israel didn’t buy Iron Dome on its own. America chipped in $200 million, and if a proposal in next year’s defense bill becomes law, that number will increase to around $900 million,” WIRED reports. Further, on October 17, the New York Times reported, “The first of 1,000 United States troops have begun to arrive in Israel to take part in a joint missile-defense exercise, which the lead American planner described on Wednesday as the largest in the history of the two countries’ relationship and a testament to the strength of their military ties.” [Eli Lake, 9/25/11. Ehud Barak via Fox News, 8/3/11. WIRED, 8/21/12. NYT, 10/17/12]
Building cooperation with European allies. Doug Wilson, Spencer Boyer and James Lamond explain the concrete benefits of Obama’s commitment to the transatlantic alliance for US interests in Afghanistan, Libya, Iran, counterterrorism and missile defense: “The reality is that the United States and Europe have rarely, if ever, been more in sync in terms of our overall strategic goals and the methods by which we seek to achieve them. Tens of thousands of European troops have been fighting alongside our own in Afghanistan, helping us build and sustain the largest overseas deployment in NATO’s history. Together, we have made enormous progress in disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda, and have set a responsible timeline for transitioning security responsibility from coalition to Afghan forces. In Libya, Obama worked through the NATO alliance and successfully used unique American assets to create a coalition that shared the burden effectively in responding to Muammar Gaddafi’s brutality. We have coordinated with our partners in Europe to confront the nuclear challenge in Iran, producing the most crippling global economic sanctions ever against any nation. On missile defense, Washington has worked with our NATO allies to put in place a more cost-effective system to defend against the threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missiles, integrating both land- and sea-based assets and more sophisticated technology than what had originally been planned.” [Doug Wilson, Spencer Boyer and James Lamond, 10/9/12]
Reassuring European security. As Sam Charap wrote for the Center for American Progress, “Following Obama’s little-noticed call in his April 2009 Prague speech and a subsequent behind the scenes push by the administration, the Baltic states got the most concrete security commitment from NATO they could ask for: contingency plans within the alliance against an external attack… And despite the incessant claims that Obama’s missile-defense plan is both a sop to the Russians and an abandonment of Eastern Europe, his ‘phased, adaptive approach’ is a system that is both proven and designed to protect all of Europe from medium-range missiles from Iran — a threat the Pentagon believes to be quite real. Compare that with the previous system, which was unproven, did not actually protect the European continent, and was intended to counteract what the U.S. military says is a nonexistent threat: the Iranians’ launching an ICBM. It’s hard to see how the new plan could be interpreted as anything but a boost to the security of Russia’s neighbors.” [Sam Charap, 6/16/10]
Backing regional allies in the Middle East. As former Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy DeLeon and Middle East expert Brian Katulis, both of the Center for American Progress, write, “The Obama administration has made substantial investments in working closely with regional allies including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to respond to Iran’s nuclear program and Iranian support for terrorist groups. The United States has provided unprecedented military aid to Israel since President Obama came into office, including investments in missile-defense systems. In addition, the United States has offered Saudi Arabia modern and upgraded capabilities, as well as enhanced defense cooperation with a range of partners in the region including the United Arab Emirates. Furthermore, the Obama administration realigned regional missile-defense capabilities to better address the threat from Iranian missiles, securing Turkey’s consent to host an early-warning radar on its soil—a radar that will monitor Iran for any missile launches. The administration has also accelerated the deployment of missile-defense systems to Europe that can protect our allies from Iranian missiles.” [Rudy DeLeon and Brian Katulis, 12/15/11]
Isolating Iran: U.S. leadership, technical setbacks and unified diplomatic efforts have put Iran under unprecedented pressure. Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution explains how the Obama administration’s work with the international community to isolate Iran is paying off. She writes, “An extensive early effort by the Obama administration to engage Tehran in negotiations helped persuade reluctant European allies to adopt unprecedented sanctions on trade and investment in Iran’s energy sector when these negotiations failed.” And as the Washington Post reports on the effect on US-led sanctions, “Oil exports have plummeted by a third, forcing Iran to shut down oil wells and close petrochemical plants, depriving the country’s economy of billions of dollars each month. Iran’s currency, meanwhile, is in free fall, driving up food prices and jobless rates throughout the country.” Teheran increasingly admits that sanctions are to blame for its economic situation. Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khomeini said, “They (sanctions) may create problems. Mismanagement may even increase these problems.” [Suzanne Maloney, 9/16/11. Washington Post, 9/25/12. Ali Khamenei via AP, 10/10/12]
Reducing the nuclear threat. This year saw the second Nuclear Security Summit, an initiative created by the Obama Administration. Those summits have brought concrete gains in nuclear security. As the Summit’s fact sheet notes, “32 countries made over 70 commitments on specific actions to enhance nuclear security at the Washington Summit, and the national progress reports submitted by the participating countries have shown that nearly all of these have been achieved.” Those results include eight countries giving up enough nuclear material to make 19 bombs and material for thousands more being properly secured against theft or misuse . And the New START treaty will reduce the strategic nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia and reinstate a stringent verification regime to ensure strategic stability between the two countries that hold more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. [Nuclear Security Summit Fact Sheet, 3/28/12. NSN, 4/4/12]
Taking a pragmatic approach to the Arab Uprisings that addresses U.S. interests in both the short and long term. Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, explains, “Overall, the Obama administration has developed effective responses to the political transitions that began in 2011 in the Middle East… Measured against his predecessor, President Barack Obama has done a much more effective job overall advancing U.S. national security interests in the Middle East… The Obama administration has rightly avoided any ‘one size fits all’ approach to the region—much to the consternation of ideologues on all sides of the spectrum.” [Brian Katulis, 9/27/12]
Ending regional conflicts, promoting transitions and responding to humanitarian disasters – without U.S. ground troops. The administration played key roles in ensuring South Sudanese independence without the outbreak of war; the beginning of a transition away from autocracy in Burma/Myanmar; and what David Rothkopf called a “low cost, high reward” approach to Libya that removed Muammar Qaddafi with broad international support and, despite the recent tragic terrorist attack there, installed a government that is working toward democracy – and highly supportive of the U.S. [David Rothkopf,10/20/11.]
Working with Russia on converging interests. While standing firm on U.S. principles on election fraud and human rights, Washington has pulled pragmatic results out of the Russia “reset,” as Andrew Weiss of the Rand Corp. explains: “Russian votes in the U.N. Security Council in 2009 and 2010 to tighten sanctions on Iran, the 2010 New START nuclear arms reduction treaty and the creation of a supply corridor across Russian territory for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. There are plenty of important issues on the agenda — nuclear nonproliferation, terrorism, the dangerous situation in Pakistan and the wobbly global economy — on which U.S. and Russian interests more or less converge.” [Andrew Weiss, 3/2/12]
Making international institutions work to America’s advantage. The administration has gotten results on U.S. priorities by working to engage and reform international institutions: from curbing the financial crisis, to human rights abuses in Iran, to monitoring of the radioactive plume from the Fukushima nuclear accident, to taking the front lines on Libya, other nations have shared costs and advanced U.S. interests around the globe.
What We’re Reading
A Bangladeshi man was arrested in a sting after attempting to detonate a fake car bomb outside the Federal Reserve building in Manhattan.
The alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks told the Guantanamo court that the U.S. government had killed more people in the name of national security than he is accused of killing.
Yemeni security officials suspect U.S. drone strikes have killed at least seven al-Qaida-linked militants in the country’s south.
President Hamid Karzai said Afghanistan forces are ready and willing if the U.S.-led international coalition decides to speed up the handover to Afghan government forces.
Greek police fought anti-austerity protesters that brought the country to a standstill.
Russia launched a criminal investigation against a dissident accused of plotting mass riots.
Japan’s new nuclear regulator will impose tighter safety standards for atomic plants.
Kenya’s Court of Appeal claims it has jurisdiction to try Somali pirates caught on international waters.
Ugandan officials dismissed allegations in a United Nations report that said Uganda supports rebels in eastern Congo.
A Cuban newspaper published a letter signed by Fidel Castro, the first by the 86-year-old former president to be made public since July.
Commentary of the Day
Richard A. Clarke argues Romney’s response to Benghazi demonstrates his inexperience with terrorism crises.
Daniel Byman discusses the five countries that pose threats to the United States, excluding Iran.
Walter Pincus suggests questions for the presidential debate on foreign policy.
The Washington Post editorial board warns against letting politicking lead to a trade war with China when improvements are coming through peaceful means.