Pushing Back

President Barack Obama's advisors fire back at Mitt Romney.

Dear Governor Romney,

The letter in yesterday’s National Review signed by your foreign policy advisors painted a distorted picture of President Obama’s national security record. We're writing you to set the record straight. Today, al Qaeda’s senior leadership has been decimated, the Iraq war has been brought to a responsible end, the transition in Afghanistan has begun, and the president has restored our leadership role in the world. We urge you to clarify exactly how and why you would depart from many of President Obama’s policies.

Because you have repeatedly said that your foreign policies will be informed by the advice of experts, we wanted to highlight some of the factual inaccuracies in the letter from your advisors. The American people deserve an honest, fact-based discussion about these important issues. Here are those facts:

• Iran is weaker and more isolated today precisely because of actions that President Obama has taken. Through sustained diplomacy, the president forged unprecedented international consensus to pressure Iran -- far greater consensus and pressure than the previous Republican administration achieved through its go-it-alone, my-way-or-the highway approach. President Obama secured the toughest unilateral and multilateral sanctions on Iran to date, and they’re having a devastating impact on its economy. The Iranian nuclear program has been slowed, and Iran’s leaders have signaled their willingness to resume talks, in which the United States will seek to ensure Iran lives up to its international obligations. At the same time, the president has firmly and consistently said that all options are on the table, including military action, to prevent the Iranian regime from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

• No president since Harry Truman has done more for Israel’s security than President Obama. Israel’s Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, has said publicly that he can “hardly remember a better period of support.” Despite serious budget constraints, the president has worked tirelessly to ensure a significant increase in security assistance to Israel, including more than $200 million to protect Israeli civilians from rockets and missiles fired by Palestinian militants and Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Even as the president has taken historic steps to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon that would threaten Israel, he has also provided Israel with critical technology to ensure its qualitative military edge and its right and ability to defend itself. The President has also encouraged both Palestinians and Israelis to take the steps necessary to achieve a lasting two-state solution based on mutually agreed-to borders and durable security arrangements. At the same time, he has steadfastly defended Israel against unilateral steps by Palestinians and others to use international bodies to impose an outcome on the parties or de-legitimize Israel’s right to exist.

• After nearly nine years of war in Iraq, the president ended the war responsibly, brought our troops home, and developed a strong relationship with a sovereign Iraq. With our diplomats and civilian advisors in the lead, the administration is working to help Iraq develop strong and accountable institutions, while standing up a dedicated Office of Security Cooperation to ensure a lasting security relationship with the Iraqis for years to come. Iraq remains a close partner with the United States military, purchasing nearly $10 billion in U.S. military hardware and training, and we will continue to develop lasting economic and cultural ties with the Iraqi people.

• The president also has a clear strategy to end the war in Afghanistan based on a transition plan embraced by NATO, our ISAF partners, and the Afghan government at the Lisbon Conference. This timeline is informed by both conditions on the ground and the continued growth in the capability, capacity, and performance of the Afghan security forces. Ultimately, the Afghans must take responsibility for their own security and governance, and we remain committed to helping them do so. Thanks to the president’s transition plan, half of the Afghan population already lives in areas in which the Afghan National Security Forces are in the lead, and the plan envisions Afghans in the lead for the whole country in 2014, marking the end of the current ISAF mission. As we transition in Afghanistan, it’s worth remembering that President Obama refocused our strategy and resources there on the goals that matter most to U.S. national security -- defeating al Qaeda and preventing a return of the Taliban safe haven that al Qaeda had before 9/11.

• Regarding Russia, President Obama signed the New START treaty, reducing the number of strategic nuclear weapons in Russia and allowing inspections of its nuclear arsenal to resume -- without placing any constraints on U.S. missile defense and conventional strike capabilities. At the same time, the United States has maintained a strong, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent. More broadly, the president has successfully worked with the Russians to advance other key policy objectives, such as securing and eliminating vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide and placing severe multilateral sanctions on Iran. The president’s decision in 2009 to reset relations between the U.S. and Russia came at a time when bilateral relations were as contentious as they had been in 20 years; that decision brought practical benefits for the United States and for the international community.

• On the defense budget, the president’s new strategy both keeps the U.S. military as the best fighting force in the world and keeps faith with the men and women who serve. The entire Defense Department senior leadership -- military and civilian, from across the services and combatant commanders -- stands behind the president and is united in the belief that the defense strategy and resulting budget decisions meet the country’s most pressing security needs. The real failure when it comes to the defense budget is the unwillingness of congressional Republicans to close on a budget deal that would avert sequestration -- a further round of drastic cuts that our military leadership has said would harm our nation’s security.

• And finally, on Cuba, President Obama has repeatedly renewed the trade embargo, and he has promised to continue to support liberty for the Cuban people and to provide humanitarian assistance to dissidents. The kind of unlimited family visits and remittances that he has allowed, as well as additional people-to-people contact, support pockets of independence in Cuba and undermine the repressive mechanisms of Cuban authorities. The president’s policies all work toward the goal of supporting the Cuban people’s desire to freely determine their future and to lessen their dependence on the Castro regime.

We are prepared to engage your advisors on these and other issues. While they were criticizing the president, they have failed to answer the following basic questions about your national security proposals:

• What specifically would you do to address the Iranian threat that is different from what President Obama is already doing? Do you believe there are still viable options for dealing with the Iranian threat short of war? What would your proposed military action against Iran involve, and how would you deal with its potentially destabilizing consequences?

• You have said you would have left tens of thousands of U.S. forces behind in Iraq. Would you have done so against the wishes of the Iraqi government and people, with no legal protections?

• Why have you not outlined any policies to achieve U.S. objectives and end the war in Afghanistan? How would you change the president’s plan, which has the full support of NATO and our closest allies, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Australia?

• What did you mean when you said, “It's not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person,” referring to Osama bin Laden? Given the clear successes of President Obama’s counterterrorism policies, why and how would you change the current approach to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda?

• Why did you call Russia "without question our number one geopolitical foe," especially when strategic cooperation with Russia is essential for countering the Iranian nuclear threat? What do you think is gained by casting Russia in this role? Do you believe there are other entities that pose greater challenges to American economic and strategic interests in the 21st century?

• Why do you continuously mischaracterize President Obama’s support for Israel, which threatens America’s longstanding bi-partisan consensus in support of our ally, by suggesting that the president is not doing things that in fact he’s already done -- such as increasing military cooperation and assistance every year since he took office?

We look forward to your responses on these specific issues.


Michèle A. Flournoy
Adm. John Nathman (ret.)
Colin H. Kahl
Jeffrey A. Bader
Spencer Boyer
Gen. Wesley Clark (ret.)
Richard Danzig
Janine Davidson
Nathaniel C. Fick
Nina Hachigian
Bruce W. Jentleson
Brian Katulis
Cliff Kupchan
Mel Levine
David Shorr
Sean Smith
Richard Verma
Jeremy Weinstein

Patrick Smith/Getty Images


100 Million Viewers Can't Be Wrong

How Kony 2012 succeeded beyond our wildest expectations.

While Kony 2012 was being released, I was working with Invisible Children staff and community leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on civilian protection initiatives. I was astonished to see the view count climb into the millions. None of us expected that a 29-minute film about Joseph Kony would go viral -- or that the backlash would include criticisms that Invisible Children was unaware of the current location of his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), when, in fact, our work has extended into currently affected regions of central Africa over the last two years.

What was perhaps most surprising to see in the wake of Kony 2012 was the misperception that the LRA are still in Uganda. Kony 2012 does portray the LRA's movement away from Uganda into the DRC, the Central African Republic (CAR), and South Sudan (minute 15:01), and a quick look at the LRA Crisis Tracker leaves no doubt about the LRA's current area of operation. Yet somehow the message in the film fell short of getting the point across. Perhaps it was due to the focus on a young Ugandan who was affected by the conflict, or perhaps it is driven by the unfortunate fact that only 20 percent of viewers actually watched the entire film, and the rest may have missed a few crucial details.

There has been much discussion about the video's impact in the days since Kony 2012 launched, but unfortunately almost none of the opinions have come from the three countries currently affected by the LRA. The insight of local leaders in the DRC, the CAR, and South Sudan has been largely excluded from the broader conversation, as has their viewpoint on the apprehension of LRA leadership in 2012, and it is clear that the discussion needs to expand.

Kony 2012 is undoubtedly simplified. It is, after all, a short film geared toward high school and college students. It was also designed for the Internet, where attention spans are notoriously short. But the backlash criticizing the film for being oversimplified misses the point -- Kony and his top commanders are still committing atrocities today in central Africa with impunity, and international efforts to stop him have not succeeded.

Delving deeper into the issue quickly reveals its complexity. The LRA have become masters of evasion and survival, eluding regional forces by weaving between country borders and veiling their tracks among those of nomadic herders. They are much smaller in number than they were a decade ago, and yet the atrocities they commit against the civilian population remain devastating. Since 2008, the LRA has abducted more than 3,400 civilians, killed more than 2,400 others, and displaced more than 400,000 people from their homes. The history of the conflict is complex, and the solutions require a multifaceted response from an array of humanitarian and security actors. A 29-minute Internet video will inevitably fall short of addressing these nuances.

What is not complex, and what the film appropriately simplifies, is the morality of the issue. For 26 years, Kony has perpetrated some of the most egregious human rights abuses on the planet, with total impunity. This idea justly demands the world's attention, and in the simplicity of Kony 2012, the film has garnered just that. The film is a gateway to learning more about the conflict, its background, and involvement in broader social issues around the world.

In their rush to point out Invisible Children's oversimplification of the LRA, the critics made an error -- an oversimplification of Invisible Children itself.

Invisible Children and dozens of other groups have been directing attention to this conflict for years. We've made 11 films about the LRA, starting in 2003 when the group was still active in Uganda. After the LRA moved out of Uganda, we launched an advocacy campaign with hundreds of thousands of youth from around the world asking the international community to support the Juba Peace Talks in South Sudan. Yet in these talks, as in the past, Kony took advantage of the relative peace to stock up on supplies and abduct young recruits to strengthen his force. With dialogue off the table, we worked with a coalition of partners to pass the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which President Obama signed into law, pledging U.S. support to apprehend top LRA leadership and provide assistance to LRA affected communities. Most recently, we've expanded operations on the ground in the DRC and the CAR to support civilian protection and rehabilitation initiatives led by local partners. For eight years, we have been following the LRA's movements, working with LRA-affected communities and collaborating with local and international organizations to promote lasting solutions to the crisis.

Invisible Children's program leaders on the ground are from Uganda and the DRC, many of whom have been personally affected by the LRA, and who are leading the design and implementation of innovative recovery efforts in the region. In Uganda, Country Director Jolly Grace Okot has pioneered the model for our programs, taking a long-term approach to overcoming the effects of conflict by improving the quality of education at schools and offering merit-based scholarships to the region's most promising youth. In DR Congo, we've partnered on projects with local leaders like Abbe Benoit Kinelegu, who have committed their lives to stopping the LRA crisis, most notably through a civilian early warning network and FM projects that encourage LRA defection. A glance at our programs on the ground and the substance of our most recent advocacy campaign shows that we do our homework, and the choice to make this film "simple" was just that. A choice.

The true impact of Kony 2012 in this conflict will not be in its ability to raise awareness, but in its demand for results. This is not about tweeting a warlord into submission or ending a conflict with a click. This is about years of advocacy work done by groups in central Africa, northern Uganda, Washington, D.C. -- and, yes, San Diego -- united with groups around the world that have enabled us to reach this moment. Each person involved in the efforts to make Kony famous is helping to build a global constituency, bigger than any one person or organization, invested in the end of LRA violence -- pushing those in positions of power to increase their commitment towards peace in the region. And with the introduction of a new bipartisan resolution introduced into U.S. Congress this week, progress has already begun. To end the LRA threat to communities, we need to change the conversation to a solutions-focused approach on the ground in currently affected regions.

I was able to witness part of this dynamic discussion last October at a civil society conference in Dungu, DRC, where leaders from the DRC, the CAR, and South Sudan came together to lobby their own governments for increased action against the LRA. The leaders also asked President Obama to follow through on commitments made in the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. Representatives from currently affected areas thanked Obama for support to regional efforts, and then demanded to see results. Kony 2012, in its simplest form, is asking each of us to demand the same.