Baggage, Politics, Economics and America’s World Leadership Future

With his family by his side, Barack Obama is s...
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President Obama announced June 22nd the phased withdrawal of American surge troops from Afghanistan.  The announcement was more a political calculus than geopolitical one, but it has unintended consequences for the latter and America’s leadership role in the world.

The Baggage of Afghanistan. Let’s face it, after ten years America is tired of chasing bad guys in the mountains of the ‘far-off-istans’ of the world.  While we are doing so under the military fiction of NATO all the heavy lifting is being done by the US.  We have reached a point in Afghanistan that without the active policy support of Pakistan we will not change the long term fundamentals of that place even if we continue to pour blood and treasure into it endlessly.  In a very real and practical sense, President Obama’s decision to authorize a phased withdrawal is both good politics and good sense.

As with most tough choices there are consequences. In the case of Afghanistan those include the high probability of a resurgent Taliban and the potential for safe havens again for terrorists.  But maintaining a special forces presence and predator drones to target bad guys is a lot cheaper and probably as effective as what we are doing now on the ground.

Thus while I think President Obama is making this decision almost entirely for domestic political reasons I still think it makes sense to extricate ourselves from Afghanistan because except for killing bad guys it is just not in America’s strategic interest to be there absent a credible partnership with Pakistan.

The Baggage of Pakistan.  Extricating ourselves from Afghanistan reduces our dependence upon Pakistan since we will not need it for access to the Afghan front. Pakistan remains a vital strategic interest of the US but exiting Afghanistan has the beneficial effect of redesigning the chess board of strategy options for dealing with Pakistan.  The options include tying future foreign and military assistance to the actual performance of Pakistan in keeping the Taliban and other militants under control.   This aligns American interests with the Pakistani interests since letting the bad guys wreak havoc also threatens their own government and military.  Our policy with Pakistan is containing the bad guys and keeping the country’s nuclear assets secure and we’ve proven adept at long term containment policies before.  Cutting their allowance for misbehavior a few times would be instructive for the Pakistani’s forcing them to earn back our trust and dollars with good deeds.  Growing our relationship with India is also useful pressure on the Pakistani’s to stick with the program.

The Baggage of NATO.  That Libya’s Gaddafi is able to defy NATO and hold his own is an indictment of Obama for failure to execute his policy that Gaddafi must go and failure of the European members of NATO to step up to the plate when called upon to enforce a consensus policy.  Libya exposes the fiction that is NATO and Secretary Gates said it plainly and honestly—the United States is no longer willing to defend Europe when Europe will not spend the money to defend itself or act in concert with the strategic policy goals of the alliance.  So while Obama has bungled Libya badly, he has done the United States a good service by framing the fiction that NATO has become and made possible a strategic discussion with the Europeans that was unthinkable until now.  In short, the EU must learn to defend itself again.

Again this stark reality has consequences.  It forces the EU to get its military act together for good or ill.  It forces the EU nations to decide if they are going to hang together or separately.  It resets the calculus for their relationships with Russia, Turkey, Iran and others in the world absent the security of America’s defense umbrella to hide under.  On the other hand, the growing relationship between Germany and Russia is worrisome not just for the US but for the other EU nations. And a NATO breakdown invites mischief from Russia writ large seeking to fill the vacuum and regain its lost sphere of influence. But these issues are inevitable and need to be addressed and now is the time the facts on the ground have dictated.

The 2012 Referendum.  The 2012 election is a referendum on many fronts.  It is the report card on President Obama’s performance and today that is not looking very good.  It is a strategic review of America’s military and defense relationship with Europe and the implications for NATO as a global force. It is a reality check on the limits of America’s resources in the current economic conditions to maintain all its foreign adventures and be the world’s policeman.  It is also a wake-up call that reminds us that isolation and pulling back on long term strategic commitments has consequences both intended and unintended.

The job of the presidential candidates is to frame the issues we must face as a nation today and for the long term.  Let’s see if they are up to the challenge.  The challenge for President Obama is to convince us that we should renew his lease on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for another four years based upon the report card of his performance for the last four years.

Expect to hear that Reaganesque question ‘are you better off today than you were four years ago’ asked often.  President Obama’s fate is likely to be determined by events beyond his control in the economy and elsewhere.  He can make it worse if he acts unwisely on any of the challenges we face, but there is little he can do to make it better fast enough to avoid a bruising race to the 2012 finish line. The President’s perceived weak performance also makes him subject to be ‘fragged’ by his own party.  We are beginning to see that with Bill Clinton’s recent cover story scale strategies for improving the economy and Al Gore’s sniping about the President’s failure to press the climate change and environmental agenda.

In his policy failures and stumbles President Obama has also made it tougher on all his campaign competitors who must now come up with positions on these baggage issues and the broader foreign policy, global economic competitiveness, and national security issues we face.  He has reminded us as voters that there are consequences for accepting the sales pitch of a positive sounding uplifting candidate with no work experience.  Many of the candidates will be questioned more sharply on their own resumes and views because of it.

The conventional wisdom is that the 2012 election is an “it’s the economy stupid” contest, but President Obama’s foreign policy stumbles or the desire of bad guys around the world to use his perceived weakness and vulnerability to gain advantage could turn foreign policy and national security into equally high priorities quickly.

Lastly, there is the matter of public confidence.  We need more of it right now.  We get it from talking to each other about what is right about America, about our shared values and common heritage and generally optimistic view of the future.  The president has charmed us before and maybe he can do it again—but this time we expect change we can believe in—and we really mean it!

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