Friday, September 26, 2008

Policy of the Foreign Variety

So there's supposed to be a debate tonight...probably. Maybe. If John McCain feels like it. For reference, McCain is the candidate who explained his negative ad blitz by complaining that Obama wouldn't face him in a town hall format. Right. Strange days indeed...

Anyway, welcome to DBMIVFK's Everything-You-Ever-Wanted-to-Know-About-Foreign-Policy-but-Were-Too-Afraid-to-Ask! We'll be covering the foreign policy situation facing these United States as the Bush Administration takes a knee on the last few moments of its time in power. Our goal here is to provide a foreign policy primer for our reader(s) out there in the tubes and to hopefully shed some light on likely flashpoints in tonight's putative debate.

Without further ado...

Inventory: Taking Stock of America's Abilities and Constraints
GWS is hardly the first observer to point out that the next president will be hamstrung by the decisions of his predecessor, but it's worth laying out exactly what a President McCain or Obama will be dealing with.
  • America's military committments mean that all active combat brigades are spoken for. During the height of the Surge in Iraq, the U.S. had one combat brigade left in the States to guard the homeland (presumably from those crafty Mexicans and Canadians, right Lou Dobbs?) and absolutely no operational flexibility outside that. The situation has eased somewhat as some of the Surge brigades have returned home, but the American military---the instrument of policy seen as America's strongest by every President and Congress since World War II---remains stretched to the breaking point. Simply put, neither a President McCain nor a President Obama can make any moves with our military without abrogating our previous committments, finding a way to get more young mens' feet in boots, or drawing down force levels in Iraq or Afghanistan. Keep this in mind when either candidate says he'll toe a tough line with Iran.
  • America's financial system is in shambles, and our national debt & current account deficit are the largest in the nation's history. Under George W. Bush, the United States completed its transformation into a debtor nation, and while the U.S. Dollar remains one of the world's only hard currencies, the American economy looks awful shaky right now. Unless you've been living under a rock for the last few months, you're well aware of this.
  • America's non-economic, non-military powers---the "soft power" Joe Nye has made his career writing about---is also at an all-time low. The War on Terror has degraded America's moral authority in the world to such a point that we have to rely almost entirely on hard power. Add in cuts to the Peace Corps, Foreign Service, and USAID, and America's image in the world hasn't been this tarnished since before the War of Northern Aggression. Anecdotally, GWS can remember a time when his European friends looked at America with envy; that is no longer the case.
Fun times, no? GWS only brings all this up because this is not the time for promises of restoring America's grandeur; this is a time when we need a careful, sober, realistic caretaker who can help the United States lick its wounds. Our constraints are further illustrated when we look at our first country, Pakistan.

Pakistan: How do you solve a problem like Pakistan? How do you find al Qaeda and pin it down? How do you find a word that means "ally?" A flibbertigibbet, a will-o'-the-wisp, a clown!

Nuclear-armed Pakistan represents, in GWS's mind, the next great international struggle. Pakistan features everything you could ever want in a prospective failed state: an uneducated, easily radicalized population; weak civilian institutions; a powerful security service that functions outside both civilian and military control; endemic poverty; and an inability to maintain a monopoly of force within its internationally recognized borders (don't even get GWS started on Kashmir...). Pakistan remains under civilian control, but just barely, and that control certainly doesn't extend to its restive Northwest Frontier Province or even parts of relatively calmer Baluchistan. Simply put, the "tribal areas" between Pakistan and Afghanistan have proved singularly resistant to governance by the modern nation-state regardless of the client-sponsor relationship. This is where the Taliban lives, where al Qaeda hides, where men with guns on one side have to obey imaginary lines while men with guns on the other side thrive because of that stricture. Sadly, the U.S. may have backed the wrong horse in Pervez Musharraf for most of Bush's tenure, but the next president will be dealing with Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. What level of control either of those men will demonstrate over the army or the ISI remains to be seen. Pakistan is a vexing problem, and while the Islamabad government is not living up to its committments to the U.S., it seems that any boat-rocking will be counterproductive (see: Bush's authorization of American incursions into Pakistan proper). The security situation in Pakistan remains delicate, to put it mildly, so GWS's hackles will jump up at either candidate's mention of sweeping change to U.S.-Pakistan policy.

Iraq: Friends of GWS are well acquainted with his ideas on the Iraq War, but this post will try to remain forward-facing. America's misadventure in Iraq will draw to a close under the next president, if for no other reason than the Iraqi government is demanding timetables for withdrawal. Iraq has an uphill fight ahead of it to avoid becoming a failed state, but short of a massive increase in troop levels, there simply isn't much more America can do. For the purposes of this debate, GWS predicts that McCain will mention the Surge's success on more than one occasion and that Obama won't challenge him on this point...but it's worth pointing out that the Surge did not, in fact, succeed. "But GWS," you cry, "levels of violence were dramatically reduced! That's not success? Why are you such a defeatist?"

Thanks for asking! GWS is not a defeatist, just a realist, and he's only judging the Surge based on the criteria advanced by its proponents. The Surge was unique among major combat operations in Iraq in that it was conceived with clear political objectives in mind. Accordingly, the Surge's success was to be measured by political benchmarks according to a timetable. For the first time in this war, Clausewitz wasn't spinning in his grave. The goal was to enable political reconciliation by reducing daily violence, thus creating the "space" necessary for Iraqi parties to hammer out a compromise. In short, the political objectives were not acheived, and the reduction in violence, while an unmitigated good, was never the point. Any attempt to say that the Surge worked is an exercise in moving the goalposts. "Oh, come now GWS, this was a difficult undertaking, and we did get a majority of those objectives done on time. Doesn't that count for something?" In a word, no. Close counts in horseshoes and handgrenades, and GWS is not inclined to give good effort points when it comes to war and statecraft. A failure to acheive our objectives says much more about the acumen of our war planners than about the difficulties facing American troops in Iraq.

In any case, look for this to be a flashpoint between McCain and Obama. McCain will insist that we must seek victory in Iraq (without ever deigning to explain what constitues victory), and he won't much care that Obama has all those pesky facts on his side. If McCain sticks to the arguments he's put forward in the past and the American viewing public responds favorably, GWS will be looking for his passport and teaching jobs in South Korea.

Russia: Remember that Simpsons episode when Russia is sitting at the UN, then presses a button and the sign flips over to reveal "Soviet Union" on the otherside, and then the parade in Red Square stops and tanks roll out from under all the floats? Well that's sorta what's happening. Questions about Russia will be a test for the bellicose McCain, mostly because there's precious little leverage the United States can bring to bear on Moscow. Nonetheless, expect McCain to talk big about "standing up to Putin," whatever that means to a country struggling to keep its economy afloat and its army intact. Expect Obama to take a diplomacy-first approach to Russia, which is as much an indication of Obama's disposition as a realistic recognition of America's capabilities and interests.

Latin America: Latin American-US relations under Bush were marked by bilateral agreements, which represents a structural shift in the way we deal with our neighbors to the south. Under the stewardship of Lula da Silva, Brazil looks poised to finally grasp the mantle of colossus of the south, Evo Morales represents a challenge to the territorial integrity of Bolivia, and Hugo Chavez remains in power in Venezuela, but GWS expects the debate's focus on Latin America to be superficial and concentrated on narco-trafficking. A focus on narcotics here would mean this debate will devolve into "who's tougher on drugs?", something GWS sincerely hopes won't happen. It'll be up to Jim Lehrer to keep Obama & McCain from going down that path.

China and India: If you've seen one nation of more than a billion people, you've seen them all. The United States still doesn't know how it wants to deal with the ascendance of India and China, so expect bland pronouncements on the competitiveness of the American worker rather than any substantive statements on India's status as a regional policeman or China's development of a blue-water navy. Expect Lehrer to cut both candidates a break on India, largely because he knows his viewers don't much care.

Iran: Huh? Oh yeah, Iran. They're trying to get a nuke, right? Right, they're still trying for that? Jesus, did you see what just happened to WaMu?

Iran has fallen out of the public discussion, but GWS expects at least one question on it tonight. That question might tell you more about your candidates than anything else. America's options for dealing with Iran are decidedly limited, and whichever candidate recognizes this more clearly will probably make for a better president.


Tonight's debate holds the promise of being the most substantive of the presidential debates. You cannot fake foreign policy expertise, historical knowledge, or a more level head than you possess, so GWS hopes that America watches this debate and watches closely. Also, would Steve Schmidt and the McCain campaign please stop acting like a bunch of drama queens and get to Oxford on time tonight?

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