The Making of George W. Obama

The 2008 U.S. election was all about change. But that's not what we're going to get on foreign policy, says the longtime speechwriter for Condoleezza Rice. Instead of a radical departure from Bush, we're likely to end up with a lot more of the same. And that may be just what we need.

On December 1, Barack Obama, who won the U.S. presidency as the candidate of "change," announced his national security team: President George W. Bush's secretary of defense (Robert Gates), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's special envoy for Middle East security (James Jones), and the doyenne of Democratic centrism (Hillary Clinton). Some saw this as the political cover Obama needs to lead U.S. foreign policy in an entirely different direction after Bush. Perhaps. But I doubt it. My hunch, and my hope, is that Obama will be a successful president, not because he'll totally change the foreign policy he'll inherit from Bush, but because he'll largely continue it.

Until just a few weeks ago, I was a part of that foreign policy. As Rice's chief speechwriter and policy advisor, I traveled with her to 24 countries. And I helped write (and rewrite) her remarks -- a body of work I'd estimate to be north of 150,000 carefully chosen words. For four years, I watched as a foreign policy took shape that was quite different from that of Bush's first term. It was a pragmatic internationalism based on enduring national interests and ideals for a country whose global leadership is still indispensable, even as the world is becoming more multipolar.

Unfortunately, the election didn't shed much light on what this inheritance means for Obama. The campaign was a two-year referendum on the Bush presidency in which Obama ran against a caricature of Bush's first term and John McCain ran desperately away from the whole thing. It was as if the past four years never happened.

But because they did, Obama will inherit a foreign policy that is better than many realize. Yes, there will be changes ahead -- most likely, to energy and climate change policy (thankfully), to the war in Iraq (winding it down), to the war in Afghanistan (winding it up), and to the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (closing it, which some in the Bush administration tried to do but couldn't). But despite all that, Obama's foreign policy likely won’t depart radically from Bush's.

Take the three states Bush once labeled an "axis of evil" -- Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. After changing the regime in Baghdad, his administration in the second term fully committed to changing the behavior of Pyongyang and Tehran. As a result, Obama will receive the baton on a multilateral negotiation with North Korea that has been and will be a frustrating marathon, but he will likely pick up where Bush leaves off, simply because there are no practical alternatives. On Iran, Obama will almost surely proceed with Bush's policy of sticks and carrots that seeks a diplomatic solution -- a third option between acquiescing to Iran's behavior or attacking Iran to change it. To have a better chance of success, this policy will need sharper sticks and sweeter carrots, including the direct engagement Obama has advocated. And if that fails, Obama will have to weigh his options -- none of which, he has said, he's taking off the table.

As for Iraq, Obama will inherit a war that Iraqis themselves are mostly ending for him. The pace and size of the U.S. troop reduction may be hotly debated, but few in Baghdad or Washington dispute that such a withdrawal is now appropriate. This effort to end the war in Iraq will enable Obama to try to save the war in Afghanistan, employing many of the lessons learned from the surge strategy he opposed in Iraq.

A challenge for Obama will be to knit the Iraq endgame into a broader approach to the Middle East. But here, too, it likely won't look all that different from Bush's: support for an independent Lebanon; attempts to elicit responsible behavior from Syria; and security cooperation with Sunni Arab regimes that may not love freedom, but definitely hate what Iran, and al Qaeda, are doing to the region.

Another part of this strategy for Obama is continuing Bush's engagement on the Middle East peace process. A real insight of Bush's first term had been that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was more than a border dispute, as Bill Clinton had framed it. Bush argued that peace required a successful Palestinian state and economy. But the first-term policy amounted to telling the Palestinians to put their house in order first, and then the United States would talk about ending the Israeli occupation. Only in the second term were both efforts pursued simultaneously. And because of it, Obama will inherit a Middle East peace process finally proceeding on both tracks at once: state-building and peacemaking.

Just as importantly, Obama will find a changing Middle East where freedom, opportunity, and the longing for dignity are bubbling up in ways that no one can control, Washington included. Something tells me that the leader of the Democratic Party isn't going to give up on supporting democracy, both in terms of institutions and elections. Obama may rebrand Bush's poorly named "freedom agenda" -- he may expand it, as some of his advisors suggest, into a "dignity agenda" -- but the basic approach will likely continue.

So, too, will there be little change on issues of global grand strategy. A refrain from the campaign was rebuilding damaged ties with America's allies. But those ties have largely been rebuilt already -- in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Obama can certainly improve these relations further, especially with real action on climate change. But another challenge may be managing the bubbles of overinflated expectations for his presidency that will soon begin bursting in allied capitals.

Bush will also bequeath to Obama a realistic strategy for managing the rise of great powers. By pushing China, India, Japan, Brazil, and others to be responsible stakeholders in the international order, the Bush administration showed that "the rise of the rest" need not be synonymous with America's decline. In fact, it might actually enhance U.S. influence. In Asia, the most geopolitically dynamic part of the world, the United States now has better relations with each major power than they do with one another. Every state wants to hedge against the others, and the partner of choice is Washington. Obama's task will be to continue inducing these emerging powers to share a greater burden of managing a new set of global challenges that no country, including the United States, can manage alone.

The asterisk here is less a rising China (though the question is still open) than a resurgent Russia. And with Russia, too, Obama will inherit a strategy that he's likely to continue, simply because it's better than the alternatives. It seeks neither to isolate Russia (which is impossible) nor to give Russia the blank check it wants in its old imperial stomping grounds (which is irresponsible). Rather, this policy seeks to balance cooperation with Russia on many shared interests with competition when interests diverge. Maybe this balance could have been struck better on issues such as Kosovo or missile defense, but that doesn't signal the need for a new policy, just a recalibration of the current one. And if anything, the Georgia war showed that, if the United States wants Russia to be a responsible stakeholder, encouragement won't be enough.

There will even likely be a great deal of continuity in the fight against al Qaeda. There's a consensus now that preemption is necessary to fight terrorism; Obama himself has advocated for it. But in Bush's second term, the administration basically converged on a new mantra: "We can't kill our way to victory," a key tenet of counterinsurgency strategy. The focus became not just fighting terrorists but building conditions of security, opportunity, and justice for the societies that terrorists seek to radicalize. It was even accepted that the United States might have to reconcile with some terrorists, as it did in Iraq and as some now support doing in Afghanistan. Obama most likely -- and correctly -- will not refer to a "war on terror" as the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy, but that doesn't mean he won't approach terrorism in much the same way.

Such a strategy depends, as the Bush administration eventually conceded, on embracing nation-building as a national interest. There is now a consensus that the United States is threatened as much by failing and poorly governed states as strong, aggressive ones. Obama's challenge will be to continue the Bush administration's effort to make nation-building a civilian-led effort -- to demilitarize U.S. foreign policy by trying to prevent states from failing in the first place. This effort will require a transformation of U.S. institutions of "soft power" -- a goal that former Secretary of State Colin Powell, then Rice, and most famously Gates made into a personal crusade. Obama will inherit the start of it -- an enlarged diplomatic corps, a rudimentary civilian expeditionary force, and foreign assistance that has been increased more than at any time since the Marshall Plan -- and he looks poised to carry the torch.

The pragmatic internationalism that Bush will pass to Obama was largely defined through changes made during the past four years. And for that reason, there might be more continuity between the second term of Bush and the first term of Obama than between the two terms of Bush himself. This foreign policy is a valuable inheritance. And if Obama avoids spending his early years in office pursuing change for the sake of change -- simply trying to disassociate himself from his predecessor, as Clinton and Bush too often did -- he could create the makings of a new bipartisan consensus on foreign policy.

Obama might realize this, but the Democratic and Republican parties, I fear, will not. They could each pretend as if Bush's second-term foreign policy never happened. At worst, Democrats could swagger righteously into power, believing their predecessors were rubes who screwed everything up, and now is the chance to do everything differently. For their part, Republicans could tell themselves the comforting lie that they lost because Bush abandoned a real conservative foreign policy -- that his second term was all capitulation to the striped-pants appeasers of the State Department.

One of my regrets about my work at the State Department is that we were unable to convince the American people that Bush's pragmatic internationalism had within it the makings of a strong, sustainable global leadership for the 21st century -- and that, as such, it had the potential to heal some of the fraught divisions over America's role in the world that have plagued the country since the end of the Cold War. My hope is that Obama will not only continue this foreign policy, but strengthen it and expand support for it among all Americans. Were he able to do that, it would truly be a change I could believe in.


Counterinsurgency Field Manual: Afghanistan Edition

Two years ago, a controversial military manual rewrote U.S. strategy in Iraq. Now, the doctrine's simple, powerful -- even radical -- tenets must be applied to the far different and neglected conflict in Afghanistan. 

For the past five years, the fight in Afghanistan has been hobbled by strategic drift, conflicting tactics, and too few troops. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, got it right when he bluntly told the U.S. Congress in 2007, "In Iraq, we do what we must." Of America's other war, he said, "In Afghanistan, we do what we can."

It is time this neglect is replaced with a more creative and aggressive strategy. U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is now headed by Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the U.S. military's counterinsurgency strategy widely credited with pulling Iraq from the abyss. Many believe that, under Petraeus's direction, Afghanistan can similarly pull back from the brink of failure.

Two years ago, General Petraeus oversaw the creation of a new counterinsurgency field manual for the U.S. military. Its release marked a definitive break with a losing strategy in Iraq and reflected a creeping realization in Washington: To avoid repeating the mistakes of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military would have to relearn and institutionalize that conflict's key lessons. At the time, the doctrine the manual laid out was enormously controversial, both inside and outside the Pentagon. It remains so today. Its key tenets are simple, but radical: Focus on protecting civilians over killing the enemy. Assume greater risk. Use minimum, not maximum force.

For a military built on avoiding casualties with quick, decisive victories, many believe such precepts veer far too close to nation-building and other political tasks soldiers are ill-equipped to handle. Still others attack the philosophy as cynically justifying the United States' continued presence in Iraq -- neocolonialism dressed up in PowerPoint. Either way, the manual's critics recognize a singular fact: The new counterinsurgency doctrine represents a near total rethinking of the way the United States should wage war.

But such a rethinking has never been more necessary. Technological advances and demographic shifts point to the possibility of an increasingly disorderly world -- what some military strategists are calling "an era of persistent irregular warfare." The United States' conventional military superiority has pushed its enemies inevitably toward insurgency to achieve their objectives. And in a multipolar world where small wars proliferate, there is reason to believe that this doctrine will shape not only the next phase of the fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the future of the U.S. military.

The surge in Iraq has been a primary consequence of the new counterinsurgency doctrine's influence, and it has clearly succeeded in improving security there. The conventional wisdom about what to do in Afghanistan is now coalescing around two courses of action that mirror steps taken during the past 18 months in Iraq: a similar surge of more troops and a willingness to negotiate with at least some of the groups that oppose the coalition's presence.

If it is true that a new plan is needed in Afghanistan, it is doubly true that Afghanistan is not Iraq. Conflating the two conflicts would be a dangerous oversimplification. The Iraq war has been mostly urban, largely sectarian, and contained within Iraq's borders. The Afghan war has been intrinsically rural, mostly confined to the Pashtun belt across the country's south and east, and inextricably linked to Pakistan. Because the natures of the conflicts are different, the strategies to fight them must be equally so. The very fact that Pakistan serves as a sanctuary for the Taliban and al Qaeda makes regional diplomacy far more necessary than it was in Iraq. Additional troops are certainly needed in Afghanistan, but a surge itself will not equal success.

Two myths persistently hamper U.S. policy in Afghanistan. First is the notion that the notorious border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan is ungovernable. The area, whose terrain resembles the front range of the U.S. Rocky Mountains along a border roughly the distance from Washington to Albuquerque, New Mexico, is home to the international headquarters of al Qaeda as well as much of the Taliban insurgency. However, the absence of a Western-style central government there should not be misconstrued as an absence of governance. The Pashtun tribes along the border have a long history of well-developed religious, social, and tribal structures, and they have developed their own governance and methods of resolving disputes. Today's instability is not the continuation of some ancient condition; it is the direct result of decades of intentional dismantling of those traditional structures, leaving extremist groups to fill the vacuum. Re-empowering local leaders can help return the border region to an acceptable level of stability.

Second, Afghans are not committed xenophobes, obsessed with driving out the coalition, as they did the British and the Soviets. Most Afghans are desperate to have the Taliban cleared from their villages, but they resent being exposed when forces are not left behind to hold what has been cleared. They also cannot understand why the coalition fails to provide the basic services they need. Afghans are not tired of the Western presence; they are frustrated with Western incompetence.

On a recent helicopter flight above the razor-sharp ridges of the Afghan southeast, a U.S. general noted to one of us that, just as the United States had failed to conduct counterinsurgency in Iraq effectively until 2007, it had similarly failed in Afghanistan by focusing too much on the enemy and not enough on providing security for the Afghan people.

It is almost too late. In the next phase of the Afghan war, the U.S. military must finally do what it has often failed to do in the past: follow some of the basic precepts of counterinsurgency, as detailed in the field manual, no matter how paradoxical they may appear.

Paradox 1: Some of the best weapons do not shoot.

1-1. Afghanistan is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Per capita GDP is $350, just one tenth of Iraq's. Life expectancy is 44 years. Nearly three quarters of the population is illiterate. The country has 50 percent more land than Iraq, but a fifth of the paved roads. Security is crucial, but it is development -- enabled by responsible governance -- that will secure a lasting peace.

1-2. Afghans' greatest concerns, according to polling by the Asia Foundation, are access to electricity, jobs, water, and education. Those who think the country is moving in the right direction can rightly cite instances of successful reconstruction efforts as the primary cause for optimism. For these reasons, security must not be seen simply as a necessary precondition for development efforts. Development often creates security by bolstering people's confidence in their government and providing a positive, tangible alternative to the Taliban. Take the National Solidarity Program. Under this initiative, villages elect a community council to oversee a development project chosen by village vote. Local people contribute a portion of the capital, labor, or materials, and allocated aid funds are distributed transparently. The results of this bottom-up process have been remarkable: Although the Taliban has burned hundreds of schools across Afghanistan, almost no schools built under this program have been destroyed, largely because the Taliban knows it would win no allies by destroying them.

1-3. Although all development is critical in this impoverished country, roads are the single most important path to success in Afghanistan. In Ghazni province last summer, one of us spoke with an Afghan road builder whose shirt was covered in dried blood. He’d been shot by the Taliban a day earlier for working with the coalition, but he was back the next morning with his paving crew because he thought that finishing that road was the best way to bolster security in his village. Indeed, the U.S. general who was critical of U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan pointed at Afghanistan's ring road from the window of his Black Hawk helicopter, and declared, "Where the road ends, the Taliban begins."

Paradox 2: Sometimes the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.

2-1. The U.S. military, designed to inflict overwhelming and disproportionate losses on the enemy, tends to equate victory with very few body bags. So does the American public. The new counterinsurgency doctrine upends this perceived immunity from casualties by demanding that manpower replace firepower. Soldiers in Afghanistan must get out among the people, building and staffing joint security stations with Afghan security forces. That is the only way to disconnect the enemy from the civilians. Persistent presence -- living among the population in small groups, staying in villages overnight for months at a time—is dangerous, and it will mean more casualties, but it's the only way to protect the population effectively. And it will make U.S. troops more secure in the long run.

2-2. This imperative to get out among the people extends to U.S. civilians as well. U.S. Embassy staff are almost completely forbidden from moving around Kabul on their own. Diplomacy is, of course, about relationships, and rules that discourage relationships fundamentally limit the ability of American diplomats to do their jobs. The mission in Afghanistan is to stabilize the country, not to secure the embassy.

2-3. Counterinsurgency strategy suggests that victory requires 20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 residents. Current troop strength in Afghanistan, including Afghan forces, are about a third of that level. The stark alternatives are to deploy more troops or to change the mission.

Paradox 3: The hosts doing something tolerably is often better than foreigners doing it well.

3-1. The United States and its allies cannot remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. Building a capable Afghan security force and a credible Afghan government is the fastest, most responsible exit strategy. U.S. efforts so far have been mixed. An army can only be as good as its government, and the government of President Hamid Karzai has been crippled by corruption and connections to narcotrafficking. His recent decision to replace the much-reviled minister of the interior is a sign that persistent U.S. complaints about poor governance might be getting through. National elections scheduled for this year provide an incentive for the Afghan government to continue to improve, and serve as a major point of leverage for U.S. policy.

3-2. At the end of the day, the coalition’s performance is less important than how well the Afghans themselves perform. Every coalition decision and every operation should be guided by two questions: Does this further the legitimacy of the Afghan government? And is that government deserving of our support? As tribal elders in Ghazni province recently said, they feel "slapped on one cheek by the government, and on the other cheek by the Taliban." The United States can and should take the lead in training Afghan soldiers and bureaucrats to be more effective, but even this task is not being given the commitment it deserves. Currently, the U.S. teams advising the Afghan Army are staffed at just half their authorized strength; the police mentor teams are manned at barely a third of the necessary staff. The low priority assigned to this keystone of any successful counterinsurgency strategy is an unacceptable flaw of U.S. policy to date.

Paradox 4: Sometimes the more force is used, the less effective it is.

4-1. In 2005, the coalition conducted 176 close air support missions (in which aircraft conduct bombing or strafing in support of ground troops) in Afghanistan. In 2007, it completed 3,572 such missions. Bombs -- even "smart" bombs -- are blunt instruments, and they inevitably kill people other than their intended targets. Each civilian death at the hands of the coalition further diminishes the finite amount of goodwill toward the United States among the Afghan people. Each civilian death undermines the legitimacy of the Afghan government the United States seeks to support. Each civilian death, when refracted through the Taliban's propaganda campaign, strengthens the narrative of America's enemies.

4-2. If military units commit to using less force, then it is imperative that others on the battlefield, particularly civilian security contractors, do the same. One of us had a nightmarish experience recently while riding in a convoy protected by Afghan security contractors on a dark highway near Jalalabad. We repeatedly hurtled through national police checkpoints without stopping and finally crashed into a stopped minibus filled with people. The momentum of our heavily armored SUV threw the bus off the roadway, but the guards refused our orders to stop and help, citing fears of ambush. Afghan civilians do not distinguish between excessive force used by soldiers and excessive force used by contractors. In a war where perception creates reality, we all suffer the consequences.

Paradox 5: Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.

5-1. Cross-border raids into Pakistan to pursue insurgents have strained U.S. relations with Pakistan at this critical juncture in the Afghan campaign. Pakistan is, of course, inextricably connected to the Afghan insurgency. The Pashtun belt, as the border area between the two countries is known, constitutes the real battleground in this war. Counterinsurgency operations in Pakistan, therefore, are a necessary component of any strategy in Afghanistan. Without Pakistani support, however, unilateral cross-border raids will create more blowback than they are worth.

5-2. A better strategy for persuading Pakistan to act as an ally -- and not a spoiler -- in Afghanistan involves giving up the short-term tactical gains of such raids in favor of the regional diplomacy necessary to broaden and deepen the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Even after Islamist extremists bombed the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September in an attempt to assassinate the new civilian leadership of Pakistan, the Pakistani Army remains more focused on the perceived threat from India than on the actual threat from inside its own country's borders. U.S. and international efforts to broker confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan are likely to have a far greater impact on Pakistani counterinsurgency efforts than any number of unilateral U.S. raids.

5-3. More U.S. troops are absolutely necessary to turn the tide in Afghanistan, but American troops are a short-term answer to a lasting set of problems. Supporting Afghan and Pakistani governments that can meet the needs of their own people -- including security -- must be the long-term solution. The paradoxes of counterinsurgency detailed here, counterintuitive though they may be, provide the best guideposts on the rocky trail toward success. It will not be the death or capture of every last enemy fighter that wins this war, but creating a position of strength from which to negotiate a lasting political solution to a cycle of conflict with no other end in sight.