It's Legacy Time, but History, like Life, Can be Unfair

Paul Pillar

Amid the usual post-election barrages of commentary about what messages the election result supposedly carries and how elected leaders ought to change their behavior in response, it is difficult to find any issue-specific messages about U.S. foreign policy in this week's result. As Michael Cohen points out, the available evidence from polls, including exit polls, is that foreign policy issues did not play a significant role in the outcome. It is true, as Gordon Adams observes, that a “witches' brew, fired up by Republican candidates,” of fears did play a role—fear of getting attacked by an ISIS terrorist, of catching Ebola, and of being swamped by immigrants flooding across the southern border. But as far as presidential policy is concerned these are not matters that were the making of the current president or are translatable into changes of course in his policies.

The one thing about Barack Obama that is different now that the election is over is, of course, that not only will he never be running for anything again but also no one else will be running for anything that will change the make-up of the U.S. Congress during his presidency. Some suggest that he still needs to be concerned about affecting the prospects for whoever will be his party's candidate for president in 2016, but that does not really need to be a constraint. Visible distance between Mr. Obama and the Democratic presidential candidate will not necessarily hurt the latter and might even help.

So now, more than ever, the president should think and act strictly and narrowly according to what is in his best judgment in the best interest of the nation while excluding from his calculations what is popular or politic. In practice this advice will frequently conflict with another common theme of post-election commentary, which is that the president needs to try more than ever to reach across the party divide to work with the opposition, now that the opposition has won big. The first type of advice should take precedence because we (and Mr. Obama) already have enough experience to know that the second type of advice will in the current circumstances yield few results. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank aptly summarized the political dynamics involved by observing that “Republicans didn't run on an agenda other than antipathy to all things Obama” and that “it was enough, electorally, for Republicans to say they were against whatever President Obama was for.” An optimistic view is that having majority status in both houses of Congress will impart a greater sense of ownership of policy and an associated sense of responsibility that has hitherto been lacking, but it is unrealistic to think that the target of the unrelenting antipathy that made for a winning electoral strategy is likely suddenly to be perceived instead as a partner in policymaking.

The senior senator from Kentucky, who is in line to become Senate majority leader, declared during Mr. Obama's first term that the number one goal of himself and his party colleagues in Congress was not to improve the state of the economy, to enhance the health and welfare of Americans, to strengthen the standing of the United States in the world, or to do anything else to further the national interest; according to the senator their number one goal was instead to deny President Obama a second term. They failed in that goal but instead did what was the nearest thing to it, which was, in Adams's words, to mount a campaign “to prevent the president from achieving any of his agenda—from health care to climate change to immigration.” Do not expect such habits to change now that a blocking minority in the Senate has become a majority.

In considering what a hypothetical president who is perfectly tuned to what is good for the national interest and not necessarily good politics ought to be concentrating on in foreign policy over the next two years, one should think first in terms of long-term trends and future challenges that are not fashionable fears of the moment such as ISIS, Ebola, or those scruffy immigrants. Climate change certainly deserves to be at or near the top of any such list, but also high on the list should be more of that pivoting to East Asia that so far has been more of a talked-about concept than a thorough addressing of America's future relations with China.

Middle Eastern problems will necessarily continue to limit the amount of pivoting, and within the Middle East the issues deserving priority include one to which Mr. Obama admirably has already devoted considerable political capital—conclusion of an agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program—and one to which he gave one shot and then pretty much gave up: the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These two issues could appropriately be treated as more linked than they usually are treated, given the motivations of the Israeli government in opposing any agreement with Iran and given how that government accounts for such a large part of the overall opposition to an agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu's government ought to be called explicitly to account for the phoniness of its opposition to an agreement, in a way that the United States has not explicitly done. In fact, just about anything having to do with Israel, given the extraordinary role Israel-related issues play in American politics, constitutes a prime area in which our hypothetical president would behave differently from real American politicians.

If Barack Obama is to become more like that hypothetical president who is selflessly guided by a dispassionate sense of the national interest rather than by politics, he will face a tough test in living up to a standard that he has talked about himself: not doing stupid stuff. The test is tough because not doing certain things detrimental to the national interest, as distinct from positively doing things that would further that interest, may run up not only against what is currently politically popular but also against the sorts of considerations that make for a favorably regarded legacy. History tends to treat presidents who accomplish positive and significant things more favorably than it treats presidents whose chief contributions to the republic were to resist pressures to do damaging things. Perhaps the closest thing to an exception was Dwight Eisenhower, who served the republic very well not only through his positive accomplishments but also by avoiding major mistakes even when friends and allies (e.g., Suez 1956) were doing stupid stuff.

If Mr. Obama is to become more like the hypothetical president, he should have begun showing signs of that after his own re-election in 2012. Some believe they see some such signs, but the signs are not clear. The president's policy toward ISIS, for example, looks to a large extent to be a bending to popular will and emotions. But he still has two more years to demonstrate otherwise.   


TopicsElections RegionsUnited States

The Master Plan: Could This Be China's Overseas Basing Strategy?

The Buzz

“Will China's growing global economic interests lead it to expand its overseas military presence and capabilities?” This is a question that has been asked by policymakers, academics and strategists since China's economic growth became dependent on its ability to access energy through maritime sea-lanes and overseas markets.

The common argument is that, as China continues to invest in developing markets and resource exporters such as South Sudan, and becomes more reliant on foreign oil and energy, primarily from producers in the Middle East, it will gradually seek to protect those interests with military forces. This would follow the pattern of other great powers throughout history, which have tended to extend a security presence to where their economic interests lie. The often heard “String of Pearls” theory which emerged out of a Booz Allen Hamilton report in 2004 follows this logic when it predicts that China, seeking to secure the flow of energy through the Indian Ocean, will use its “commercial and security relationships to establish a string of military facilities in South Asia.”

But some are asking if China is different.

A recent report from the Institute for National Strategic Studies, "Not an Idea We Have to Shun": Chinese Overseas Basing Requirements in the 21st Centuryargues that, based on an understanding of China's “long-standing” foreign policy principles and goals, there is little evidence that it will pursue a “String of Pearls” strategy.

Far more likely is that Beijing will implement a “Dual Use Logistic Facility” strategy, in which overseas bases will provide “medical facilities, refrigerated storage space for fresh vegetables and fruit, rest and recreation sites, a communications station, and ship repair facilities.” This would entail a far leaner and less overt military and security presence than the “String of Pearls” theory or most other predictions about the future of PLA Navy overseas basing. The report states that:

Given China’s self-image as a champion of the developing world and a positive alternative to other global powers, it is highly unlikely to pursue models that involve large overseas military bases or extensive networks of facilities on the sovereign territory of other states. Beyond the rationale that China is unlikely to violate foreign policy principles that it has established as a foundation for its foreign and defense policy behavior, there is an even stronger reason that China will not establish these kinds of overseas bases. They would threaten China’s image as a peaceful rising power and could imperil China’s future economic growth, if the international community interprets such bases as evidence of malign Chinese long-term intentions.

It also seems that the PLA Navy is learning from the US Navy, which is well versed in overseas logistics, resupply and basing. Take this anecdote about how the PLAN has resupplied its anti-piracy task force operating in the Gulf of Aden these last six years:

PLAN ships visited Aden 10 times, making it one of the most frequently visited ports. However, only one type of PLAN ship has visited Aden: comprehensive supply ships. The supply ships replenish their food, water and diesel fuel and then provide replenishment-at-sea services to other ships in the PLAN Gulf of Aden Task Force. This operational pattern closely mirrors U.S. Navy operational patterns in the Persian Gulf, suggesting that the PLAN studied and applied U.S. naval concepts of operation. That the port of Aden also happens to have been the port in which the USS Cole was attacked by al Qaeda in 2000 is probably not lost on PLA Navy planners. Thus, the operational pattern of sending a single replenishment ship to Aden and having it replenish other ships not only mimics the U.S. pattern of behavior but is also a prudent force protection measure.

On the often-heard “String of Pearls” theory, the report makes a strong case that it is simply not taking place: 

First, there is no evidence that the Chinese are currently conducting military activities at any of the String of Pearls sites. To date, PLAN Gulf of Aden task forces have not used or visited a single String of Pearls site. Second, transactions between the PLAN and host countries providing support for PLAN Gulf of Aden operations have been commercial in nature. These ports have only provided “hotel services,” replenished supplies, and served as liberty sites for visiting PLAN ships. Finally, the number of PLA forces and units involved in out of area activities has been very limited. None of this evidence supports assertions that the Chinese intend to deploy enough forces in the Indian Ocean to dominate the region or engage in major combat operations with any of its neighbors.

While this report is certainly good news for those that fear an Indian Ocean confrontation between an “encircled” India and China, tensions are still high and were most recently symbolized by the furor created from a pit-stop by a PLA Navy nuclear submarine in Colombo.

We must also remember, other great powers were once “different” too.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

The New GOP Congress: Can the Hill Finally Pass the 2015 Defense Budget?

The Buzz

The results of the 2014 midterm elections are in: Republicans had a fantastic night. The GOP has further solidified its control of the House of Representatives with roughly 245 seats (the biggest Republican majority since the Truman administration) and regained control of the Senate with at least seven new seats—the first time since 2006. In the long run, this shift is likely to test the significant differences in foreign policy outlook that have opened between leading Republicans (and potential 2016 presidential candidates). In the medium term, Senator John McCain (R-AZ)’s long-sought chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee will likely lead to more direct confrontations between Congress and the White House regarding current defense policy, war powers, and ISIS strategy. Most immediately, however, the conclusion of the midterm elections raises another pressing question: can Congress pass the FY15 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) before the end of this year? And if so, what might the final bill look like?

Among the many defense budgetary debates now taking place within the halls of Congress, here are five issues that deserve special attention:

1. The danger of sequestration is looming larger—and it’s set to come crashing down in FY16.

It has become clear that even if Congress does succeed in passing an FY15 defense budget, the hard challenges of 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) will still have been put off another year. Although a 2013 budget deal increased the FY15 defense budget authorization to $521 billion from $496 billion—a number that the House and Senate defense authorizations currently meet—this cushion will be gone in FY16, with the ceiling reduced to roughly $500 billion. Pentagon planners are budgeting as if this limit will be raised, and they have already delayed at least $20 billion in desperately needed maintenance. 2015 is destined to be a very rocky year in the ongoing defense budget debate.

2. The Overseas Contingency Fund (OCO) and transformation toward budgetary “emergency valve.”

The House has authorized $79.4 billion in OCO spending; the Senate has authorized $59 billion. With the rising cost of the fight against ISIS, the continuing operational presence in Afghanistan, and a variety of brewing crises abroad, the final bill will likely trend toward the higher figure. As Katherine Blakeley of the Center for American Progress convincingly argues, however, a high OCO will exacerbate the Pentagon’s use of this money as an “emergency fund” only loosely tied to the actual cost of operations. OCO is meant to be used for expendables not modernization (as the Air Force was reminded when it attempted to fund the F-35 with it!). Using the OCO for non-operational things is a difficult line to draw, given wear and tear on equipment and the enduring nature of military operations over the last two decades. Regardless of the intent, OCO is unpredictable and year to year, so it is no way to fund new equipment and modernization.

3. The A-10 Warthog: probably safe for another year.

The Air Force’s plan to retire the A-10 Warthog has been under fierce scrutiny since the day it was announced, despite estimated savings of $4.2 billion. Although Congressional approval of the divestment was always in doubt, the air campaign against ISIS is now demanding exactly the sort of close air support that the A-10 provides. This shift, coupled with Republican control of the Senate Armed Services committee—where Senators McCain and Kelly Ayote (R-NH) have been some of the most prominent defenders of the A-10—may essentially push the issue off the table.

4. Pressing “skip” on tough choices regarding military compensation and base realignment and closure (BRAC).

Although Congress is set to approve some small steps toward compensation reform like a slow in the rise of the basic allowance for housing (BAH), more comprehensive measures proposed by the Department of Defense have been shot down. Both the House and Senate have approved a 1.8 percent rise in pay, as opposed to the 1 percent urged by defense planners. Most TRICARE adjustments, ranging from adding enrollment fees to a modest increase in premiums, have been discarded. A tentatively proposed 2015 BRAC round proved an immediate nonstarter, and there is virtually zero chance of more happening on a BRAC until after the 2016 presidential election. Despite significant defense personnel reductions, the last BRAC round took place in 2005.

5. A new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)?

Interestingly, there may be growing Congressional momentum to issue a new—and more narrowly defined—AUMF to provide legal justification for operations against ISIS. Although Congress largely avoided the ISIS debate with consideration to potential political backlash (and the White House was comfortable operating under the 2001 AUMF originally directed toward Al Qaeda in Afghanistan), with the elections over, this may well become a big point of debate in the final weeks of the 113th Congress.

Under a short-term Continuing Resolution approved September 17, Congress has only until December 11 to determine the FY15 defense budget—the Senate version alone of which has received 239 amendments. The next month will prove vitally important. Our armed forces deserve some level of financial certainty as they look to the difficult year ahead. It is Congress’ job to make that happen.

Emerson Brooking contributed to this post.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Defense in Depth.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsDefense RegionsUnited States

The Midterm Results: "The political momentum in Washington clearly is with a resurgent Republican Party."

The Buzz

Power is supposed to be diffuse in American politics.  Especially at the federal level, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution were keen to avoid the monopolization of authority by any one party (or “faction”).  By designing a system that would tend towards power being apportioned between political actors rather than concentrated in one set of hands, the architects of the American government sought to entrench republicanism and limited government.

Yet the relentless diffusion of power is not without its problems.  Without a single locus of authority in the federal government, questions of accountability can arise.  In the words of Woodrow Wilson, who as a scholar found much to dislike with the operation of American government, “How is the schoolmaster, the nation, to know which boy needs the whipping?”  In other words, which parties or politicians should incur the public’s wrath when the federal government is failing?  Are national elections referenda on president’s party (or the majority party in Congress) or are they better seen as constellations of local contests, each with their own sets of issues, candidates, and meaning?

Last night, the Democrats lost control of the Senate in dramatic fashion, the American people handing majorities in both chambers of Congress to the Republican Party.  Both parties will attempt to frame the results to suit their own political ends.  Having portrayed the elections as a referendum on President Obama, the new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell already has called the result a denunciation of “a government that people can no longer trust.”  The Democrats have been whipped; the Republicans have been favored.

During the election campaign, however, observers agreed that there was no unifying theme to bind together the disparate electoral contests taking place from coast to coast.  This was a Seinfeld election, they said; an election “about nothing.”  From this perspective, the Republican Party would be overstating the case to claim a mandate to govern.  While the Democrats probably will not push the point too far, it is nevertheless likely that the White House will minimize the wider significance of the GOP’s triumphs.  President Obama’s own mandate to govern is still current, they will insist.

Whatever the correct way to interpret the results—whether the nation was consciously admonishing the president’s party or simply venting frustration at politicians in general—the political momentum in Washington clearly is with a resurgent Republican Party.  The GOP has chalked up its largest majority in the House of Representatives since World War II; it has taken Senate seats from the Democrats in states such as Colorado, which twice voted for President Obama; and Republicans now occupy the governor’s mansion in supposedly blue states such as Maryland, Massachusetts and Obama’s own Illinois.  These are considerable gains.

But can these gains be sustained going forward?  Newt Gingrich perhaps put it best last night while providing commentary on CNN when he credited the elections with demonstrating that “campaigns matter, candidates matter, and—by the way—your vote matters.”  This was far from a vapid observation: yesterday’s elections proved that the modern Republican Party can win across the nation—including in some very unexpected locales—if it is equipped with the right messages and blessed with the right candidates and (Newt omitted to mention) the right timing.  These are important—and highly restrictive—qualifications, to be sure, but at least last night’s results should put paid to the commonplace notion that the Republican Party is in terminal decline, an embattled party with a shrinking membership, increasingly unable to garner votes from outside of its heartlands.

This is not to say that the Republicans will learn from the experience and elect to refine and update their message in future elections: anti-Obama campaigning can only unite an electoral coalition for so long and the GOP has struggled in recent years to rally behind a positive program for government.  Nor does it say anything about the quality of candidates that will emerge: a toxic Tea Partier would condemn the party to oblivion in 2016; the challenge for the party is to carve out a space for moderate politicians to adopt a leading role on the national stage.

Meanwhile, Democratic strategists should be worried.  What happened to their much vaunted “ground game” in states like Colorado and Illinois?  Why can’t the party poll well without President Obama on the ballot?  Is this simply a case of the familiar six-year itch or do these torrid election results point to some fundamental inadequacies with the Democratic coalition?  Are the Democrats about to be cast into the wilderness?  The party’s would-be nominees for 2016 have two years to put together their responses.

Until then, Americans will expect their leaders to work with the messy, overlapping electoral mandates that have been handed to them.  Important matters of domestic policy and foreign affairs hinge upon the White House and the Congress, Democrats and Republicans, being able to pool authority and govern in an effective manner.  The Framers intended that it would be this way; the American people have duly played their part.  All eyes are now on Washington.  Few, however, are holding their breath.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

Think ISIS Militants Are Scary? Wait Until Their Kids Grow Up.

The Buzz

The Islamic State takes pride in training children to become jihadists, suicide bombers and beheaders. While morally despicable, this is not a discussion about the ethics of training children to be soldiers. As a country already invested in a fight against the Islamic State, however, there are some very real concerns about these children that should be addressed when using airstrikes—and potentially ground troops in the future—to “degrade and ultimately destroy [ISIS].”

Obviously, the United States should be concerned about the safety of these children—many of whom have been orphaned in either Iraq or Syria, due to both internal conflicts and, ironically, the merciless acts of the “Caliphate” to which they pledge allegiance. But as the eerie five-part series on Vice News about the Islamic State documents, these children may grow up to be the new faces of ISIS.

In the second segment of the series, several children are interviewed either by the Vice reporter or an Islamic State fighter. A father who emigrated with his son from Belgium to the Islamic State in Raqqa asks his son why he wants to kill all the infidels (namely, in Europe). His son replies, “Because they kill Muslims.” Now, place yourself in the mind of this child. Your father drills into you that all non-Muslims are infidels who want to kill Muslims. He does not explain to you that the “infidels” are only aiming to kill bad Muslims like himself. He leaves that information out. So you grow up thinking that America is sending airstrikes to Raqqa, your new home, to kill all Muslims, when really America’s goal is to kill the Islamic State. Now, even if America could somehow convince this child and his peers that it only wants to eliminate the Islamic State—which, it does, and has publicly announced it will do—they have been taught to love the Islamic State and everything it represents.

In essence, these children, if continued to be brought up learning the ways of ISIS, will ultimately pose a much greater threat to Baghdad, Damascus and the Western world than their fathers and mentors did. Many adults in the Islamic State learned to speak the language of violent jihadism as just that—adults. Take the moldable, impressionable young mind of a child and teach him the language of violent jihadism at age seven, and he will speak it more fluently than his predecessors.

How, then, can these children be pulled out of the brainwashed state of mind in which IS militants have placed them? How can we reverse the teachings of ISIS? The simple answer: we probably can’t. However, there may be a way to discredit the teachings.

The Islamic State preaches that it carries out Allah’s will by purging the world of (mostly Western) infidels who wish only to kill Muslims and by spreading the Caliphate. It preaches that Sharia can be implemented only with weapons (which conveniently supports ISIS’ love of violence). Well, unfortunately, by implementing airstrikes, we are confirming—in the minds of those children—that what their leaders tell them about Western “infidels” is true.

So why doesn’t the Western world just cease with its counterinsurgency strikes on the Islamic State? Aside from the fact that it would force the Arab states and other regional actors whose security is more threatened by ISIS than ours is to lead the fight against the Islamic State, if we don’t kill any Muslims, then the preachings of ISIS to these children will be rendered falsehoods. Some psychologists assert that when parents or parental figures lie to children, they lose faith in those figures and are less likely to trust them, causing confusion and doubt within themselves and about those around them. If these children became disenchanted with their mentors, because they believe they are being lied to, there would likely be less of a chance that they would grow up to be ruthless, bloodthirsty jihadis blindly following, and ultimately leading, the Islamic State.

The children of ISIS are told that infidels are killing Muslims, and sure enough, they see America killing Islamic State militants. However, if the foundation of what they have been taught is flipped upside down, and they do not see Americans killing Islamic State militants, they may start to question the validity of the Islamic State’s leaders and their claims. Since many in the West have already asserted that airstrikes against ISIS are not working, and since the only other effective addition to the anti-ISIS campaign—sending ground troops—is an unpopular option, there does not seem to be much of an argument for continuing to attempt to eliminate the Islamic State—especially if by doing so, we are only showing those young, budding jihadis that their leaders are right and that their jihad is justified.

Rebecca M. Miller is an Assistant Editor at The National Interest. She tweets at @RebecMil.

TopicsISISCounterinsurgencySecurity RegionsIraqSyriaUnited States