Eyes On The Prize (Cont.)

President Obama soon will be leaving for Norway to give his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.  According to this article, Norwegians are upset because he has cancelled a number of the events traditionally attended by the Peace Prize winner, including a lunch with Norway’s King.  I wonder if, perhaps, the President cancelled some of the events because he just did not think it would be politically helpful to be seen on TV back in the States attending function after function in Norway, all in relation to accepting a Prize that many people believe he did not really deserve?

I am sure that the President’s acceptance speech will be carefully analyzed.  Apparently he is going to tackle, head on, the irony some people see in his acceptance of the Peace Prize only days after announcing that he was going to send more troops to Afghanistan.  I think he should do so, and I think in that regard he should point out that, occasionally, peace must be achieved by standing firm and fighting those who have an insatiable appetite for conquest, for death and destruction, or for trampling on the human rights of others.  Many tried to negotiate with Adolf Hitler without success; peace in Europe ultimately was achieved only at the point of a sword.

I also think the President would do himself a favor by not criticizing his predecessor or, once again, suggesting that he has brought new enlightenment to a benighted United States of America.  Such criticisms seem motivated solely by a desire to obtain some kind of domestic political advantage by constantly making comparisons to a President who was tremendously unpopular at the end of his term.  I agree with the old adage, however, that politics should end at the water’s edge.  I think it seems small for the Obama Administration to constantly belittle the efforts of the Bush Administration.  Equally important, I question whether boasting about the policy changes that have occurred is a good foreign policy technique.  Foreign policy is supposed to reflect a country’s national interests, and those interests really should not change dramatically even if voters have decided to replace the party in power.  Do we really want foreign governments to think that a change in Administration will cause American foreign policy to swing like a pendulum?  Won’t that encourage foreign governments who disagree with our policy to either meddle in our political affairs or wait out the current Administration, in hopes that voters will replace it with one that will develop a new policy that is more palatable?

Not Another Brick In The Wall

November 9, 2009 will be the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That singular event — which led to the liberation of millions of people trapped in the communist dictatorships behind the Iron Curtain — is one of the most notable achievements of modern American foreign policy, ranking with the Marshall Plan and the enlightened governance of post-war Japan. For the long decades of the Cold War, American Presidents and politicians of both political parties steadfastly opposed communism and the expansionist efforts of the Soviet Union. That process culminated in the political and economic bankruptcy of the Soviet Union and, ultimately, in the fall of the Berlin Wall.

President Obama’s decision to change his plans, so that he will not attend the ceremonies commemorating the 20th anniversary, is extremely disappointing precisely because the fall of the Berlin Wall was a significant American foreign policy accomplishment that deserves to be celebrated by the American President. It also was an accomplishment that sent the kinds of messages that you would think President Obama would want to send — messages of resolution and commitment. In the wake of President Obama’s decision to retreat from the European missile defense system proposed by the Bush Administration and his decision to publicly revisit our Afghan policy, it would seem to be a wonderful time for a presidential visit to Berlin to commemorate a tremendous achievement that was the product of decades of concerted, bipartisan effort.

President Obama has often apologized for what he considers to be American excesses; why not celebrate what is unquestionably an American triumph? Why not let the American people bask for a moment in the grateful thanks of the peoples of eastern Europe? In an era where the President can jet off to Copenhagen to pitch the Olympics for his adopted hometown of Chicago, what could possibly keep the President from attending such a significant event?

The Chain Of Command

President Obama’s protracted consideration of a new Afghanistan strategy is a bit puzzling.  Obviously, the decision on whether, and if so how, to fight overseas is a critical decision that you would expect would command the President’s careful attention.  Nevertheless, it is odd that the President approved an Afghan strategy in March and now appears to be very publicly reconsidering that strategy. Candidly, I think Presidents are ill-served by public decision-making processes, which often make them look indecisive.  A better approach is to consider the strategy privately and then, when the weighing and balancing has been completed, to announce the new approach.

I know that General McChrystal has been criticized for a speech he gave, in which he expressed his views on options that the President may be considering.  I agree with the sentiment that the military should express its views through the chain of command — although American history is riddled with politically ambitious generals, from Jackson to McClellan to MacArthur.  I think General McChrystal can be excused his misstep, however, in view of the very public nature of the strategizing, where other participants, like Vice President Biden, are openly trumpeting their proposed alternative approaches.

I certainly hope that President Obama is not seriously considering adopting a half-baked, politically motivated “Biden strategy” over a “McChrystal strategy.”  In that regard, I agree with the conclusions articulated in this piece.  I think Joe Biden is one of the most overrated, underachieving political figures of the past 30 years –a blabbermouth, a windbag, a narcissist, shallow and unprincipled.  It is bad enough that President Obama selected Biden as his running mate; it would be an appalling indictment of the President’s judgment if he actually followed Biden’s advice.

Eyes On The Prize

Congratulations to President Obama on winning the Nobel Peace Prize.  I’m not sure that our humble blog can add much to what has already been said about this surprising announcement.  Richard thinks it is a good thing to reward someone who has announced that his Administration will be different from the last in terms of commitment to dialogue, collective action through the United Nations, and multilateralism.  I, on the other hand, am a bit suspicious that the award is not so much a tribute to President Obama as it is another slap to President Bush by the European community.

Politically, I am not sure what this means for President Obama.  I think it is not necessarily a bad thing for an American President to be popular with the citizens of other countries, but the question is: popular for what?  Winning the Nobel Peace Prize 9 months into your Administration, without a concrete peace-related accomplishment to your name, seems bizarre.  The stated reason for the award seems to be that it is aspirational and intended to be inspirational — that is, an effort by the awards committee to push American policy in a particular direction.  I hope President Obama does not let the award influence his decision-making on matters of American national interest, like how we should proceed in Afghanistan.  Those decisions should be based on a hard-headed assessment of American interests, not on concerns about the perceptions or interests of a Scandinavian committee.

The Prospect Of A Nuclear Iran

The recent disclosure about a new secret Iranian facility devoted to the Iranian nuclear program — one of several such facilities in Iran — significantly raises the stakes in our relations with that Islamic state. It seems clear that the President will focus, for the present, on getting international agreement to some form of new sanctions on Iran. The question is whether the Administration should do more, and when? Some believe that the United States’ slow response to the Iranian nuclear program, and its dithering with respect to the North Korean program, are just encouraging other rogue states to try to enter the nuclear fraternity.

I doubt that Japan and other neighbors of North Korea are happy with the North Korean nuclear program or the missile tests the North Koreans have held in the past year. Such behavior is necessarily destabilizing. With each North Korean missile test I imagine the Japanese wonder whether, this time, the rogue government of Kim Jong Il has strapped a nuclear warhead aboard in hopes that the world will show it a bit more respect.

In Iran, the risks are even higher due to the volatility of the Middle East generally, the oil reserves located there, and the disturbing nature of the Iranian regime. Shouldn’t we all be terrified by the prospect of a nuclear Iran, governed by medieval religious figures and led by a Holocaust-denying fanatic who threatens the existence of Israel with every speech? Aren’t the parallels to Hitler and Nazi Germany too obvious to be overlooked? Shouldn’t we take Mr. Ahmadinejad at his word in his vows to wipe Israel off the map, and realize that preemptive action may the only way to avoid a second Holocaust?

The crucial difference between Iran and Nazi Germany, of course, is that Hitler, due to the technological limitations of his time, could only proceed through conventional warfare to cause a war that killed millions. If the Iranians succeed in developing nuclear weapons, they need only lob a few missiles at Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other nations to cause a global conflagration. The risks of that occurring are too appalling to contemplate or to permit. Any new sanctions regime should be brief and unyielding in its insistence that Iran stop its nuclear program; in the meantime the United States should be working with Israel and our allies to devise and, if necessary, carry out espionage and military options that will prevent Iran from realizing its evident nuclear ambitions.

Another View From Abroad

Here’s an interesting perspective from Australia on the international perception of President Obama — complete with an entertaining reference to the “Fonzie” codicil to foreign policy.

Regardless of whether this writer is correct or not in his assessment, it should be concerning that people overseas are writing openly about our President as weak or out of his depth.  Even if that perception is flat out wrong, the mere existence of the perception could tempt one of our adversaries into taking a reckless action that they might not have tried otherwise.  Similarly, if the President comes to appreciate the existence of such a perception, it may cause him to take an action he would not have taken under other circumstances in order to try to correct that perception.

When it comes to foreign policy, it seems crucial to project strength and resolve, and then to back up words with actions.  The best American pop culture reference probably is not Fonzie, but rather the John Wayne character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Leaking Like A Sieve

It is appalling that General McChrystal’s confidential report on conditions in Afghanistan for President Obama was immediately leaked to the Washington Post.  Who was the leaker?  Someone in the White House who thinks the war in Afghanistan is wrong and wants to exert pressure on the President to stop the fighting?  Someone in the military who wants the public to know that the military is recommending more soldiers on the ground, so that there will be pressure on the President to follow that recommendation?  Or is it just someone who got a copy of the report and wants to curry favor with the Post in hopes of getting some fawning Style article at some point in the future?

Does no one in government put the best interests of the country over their own self-interest or their personal political views?  Don’t the few people who got copies of this report feel sufficient loyalty to President Obama to allow him to review and carefully consider a confidential report about a military matter?  The people who leak these important reports to the press seem to think it is all some kind of Washington insider political game.  It isn’t.  The decision on how to proceed in Afghanistan — which unquestionably was an important base for terrorists before 9/11 and still serves as a significant refuge and threat — is an important one that the President should be permitted to make after quiet reflection and consultation, without being rushed or prodded by unseemly leaks.

As a former journalist, I am all in favor of open government and vigorous press coverage of important decisions.  A government has to be able to keep some secrets, however — particularly when it comes to military and intelligence matters.  Right now, our government seems incapable of performing that essential activity.  At some point, it will cost us.

Foreign Policy Blues

There has been a lot of criticism from the right, and some other quarters, of President Obama’s recent decision to scrap elements of a missile defense system for Eastern Europe.  The move has bitterly disappointed our allies in Poland and the Czech Republic, who were to host elements of the system and viewed it as important to their security against a resurgent Russia.  Mark Steyn’s typically acerbic view of the matter is here. This article argues, on the other hand, that the disappointment felt in Eastern Europe is actually the product of a series of failures, many of them by NATO, to live up to promises and agreements.  In other words, the writer suggests that the bitter reaction in Eastern Europe to the missile defense decision should not be laid totally at the feet of the Obama Administration.

Still, foreign policy is a constant challenge, as nations jockey for position in pursuing what they believe to be in their own best interests.  Any national leader worth this salt is regularly assessing other leaders and drawing conclusions about whether those leaders can be pushed or prodded, threatened or cajoled, or moved by guilt or fear into changing a position or staying their hand in the face of a new challenge.  When Vice President Biden predicted, during the recent presidential campaign, that President Obama would be tested by some foreign policy crisis early in his presidency, I think Biden was thinking in this terms.

When world leaders look at America today, in the wake of the missile defense system, what conclusions will they draw?  Will they see a country that seems to be looking inward, focused on domestic issues like health care and the economy, to the exclusion of international affairs?  Equally important, when world leaders look at Eastern European countries, or other erstwhile American allies, will they see nations that are perhaps a bit less confident in the prospects of getting help from the West, and therefore more susceptible to sabre-rattling?   These are the kind of realpolitik evaluations that are not really affected by well-crafted speeches.  We need to show our allies that they can count on us in a pinch, and we need to make sure that other contestants on the world stage know that as well.

How It Began, 70 Years Ago

September 1, 1939 — 70 years ago today — is generally regarded as the date World War II began, with the German invasion of Poland.  (Some might argue, taking a broader view, that the world was at war for most of the 1930s, whether it was the Japanese in Manchuria and China, the Italians in Ethiopia, or the Spanish Civil War, among other armed conflicts.)

Spiegel online is running a two-part series on how World War II began.  Part I is here.  The overwhelming, and tragic, message is that the war could easily have been avoided had France, England, and other European nations called one of Hitler’s various bluffs — but they didn’t, and the war began.  It did not end until six years had passed, entire cities and cultures had been destroyed, 60 million people had died, and the Holocaust had wiped out millions of Jews.  No one could have foreseen that result when, for example, France and England made the decision to accept Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

The Lockerbie Bomber, Oil, And Justice

I’ve posted before — here and here — on the indefensible decision of the Scottish government to release Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the terrorist convicted of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. The British press is all over the story, digging to see if there were grounds other than “compassion” for the release. The London Times is now reporting that the Lockerbie bomber deal was motivated by British interests in securing a potentially lucrative Libyan oil contract for BP.  Letters written by British justice minister Jack Straw some time ago seem to confirm the link.

I suppose every country has to look after its own interests, but I am keenly disappointed that the Brits would sacrifice justice for oil and cash.  I have always admired the British, and I think America has benefited by having a stalwart, dependable ally.  It is sad to see that relationship traded away for a few billion pounds.


North Korea is one of those countries that is so cut off from the outside world that it is almost impossible to know what is really going on there. As a result, when North Korea does something unexpected — like its test firing of a nuclear missile yesterday — people are left to guess about what caused North Korea to act. This article, which identifies three possible reasons for the nuclear test, is a good example.

Anyone trained in negotiation will tell you that a significant part of being a successful negotiator is knowing who you are negotiating with and understanding their motivations so that you can develop a proposal that they will find attractive. How can you do that with a country like North Korea, where outside governments don’t even know for sure who is in charge?

Guys and Gifts (Part II)

It looks like President Obama isn’t the only guy who has struggled recently with the choice of an appropriate gift. President Obama’s gift may not have been sufficiently thoughtful in the eyes of some, but at least it didn’t have an overt and offensive politicial message like the gift given to President Obama by Chavez. I understand that America’s role in affairs south of the border has not been our finest shining hour, but seriously, do Latin American leaders really believe that America has done more damage to their countries than the corruption and greed of dictators or the death and destruction brought on by “revolutionary” movements ?

Our Timbers Should Shiver

The Somali pirate drama is one of those small, but potentially telling, incidents that happen from time to time. The pirates attacked a ship flying an American flag and took its captain hostage. Days have now passed, the captain remains a captive, and the pirates continue to thumb their noses at our government.

I am a subscriber to the “broken windows” theory described at some length in The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. That theory posits that people who live in a neighborhood that features little signs of unaddressed lawlessness — like broken windows, graffiti, and other petty crime — can lose hope and conclude that there is no law. Events then can spiral downward and out of control as people perceive that there is no order or authority. I think the same concept applies to international law. An attack by pirates may be a small matter — indeed, the concept of modern-day pirates seems ludicrous — but it is one of those signs of lawlessness that could promote more reckless illegal behavior by other renegade actors on the international stage.

Unfortunately, many civilized governments don’t seem to have the stomach to deal with the Somali pirates. Instead, they seem to hope that the pirates, or the terrorists, will realize that we mean them no harm and just go away. Our country, on the other hand, seems to have the will but is so bound up by concerns about legality and the perceptions of the international community that we shy away from taking unilateral action. In the meantime, outright piracy goes unpunished — and the number of broken windows in the neighborhood grows.

I think it is time for us to realize that our failure to act in these situations is sending a strong, but negative, message. It can only encourage other “bad actors” to commit acts that risk the mere disapproval of the civilized world, but no other consequences. If inaction continues, and piracy, kidnapping, and other guerilla tactics proliferate, the impact on things like international trade, democratic institutions, and global progress will be devastating. What is the point of being an economic and military giant if we cannot crush pirates who flout international law, and thereby send a message that such intolerable lawlessness will be dealt with swiftly, and with finality?

In the Neighborhood

The problems in Mexico, with thousands of people being killed in horrific drug-related gang violence, much of which is occurring in towns bordering the United States, is a real concern. Such violence could easily spill over into the U.S., or cause more Mexicans to come illegally into the U.S., or both.

For many years, I think, people haven’t paid much attention to Mexico as a subject of foreign policy. We’ve lived with illegal immigration and the drug trade issues for decades, and Mexico therefore hasn’t been as high a priority as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, North Korea, the Mideast peace process, a resurgent Russia, and an increasingly powerful China. I think the Obama Administration is properly recognizing that our attitude needs to change. Close proximity should magnify concerns. Common sense tells you that your next-door neighbor’s problems can have a more immediate impact on you than the problems of a person who lives five blocks away.