Stealing the Hymnal

The Democrats might have real differences over foreign policy with their Republican challengers, but you wouldn't know it from listening to them.

Having spent the last two weeks in Tampa and Charlotte at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions and listening to an interminable number of political speeches I'd have to say the number of remarkable events, aside from an old man yelling at an empty chair, were somewhat few and far between.

But there was one notable exception on Thursday night at the DNC in Charlotte. In what was a highly effective, though somewhat unremarkable acceptance speech Barack Obama made the following comment, "My opponent and his running mate are new to foreign policy" -- and then he paused. The crowd, quickly grasping the implications of the comment, began to laugh and then applaud.

It was an amazing moment; even transformational in the politics of national security and foreign policy. Barack Obama and the Democrats weren't simply criticizing the positions of their GOP opponents -- they were openly mocking, even ridiculing them as lightweights, as blusterers and blunderers not up to the responsibility of U.S. global leadership.

It wasn't long ago that this was precisely the line of attack used by Republicans in attacking Democrats like Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, and even Barack Obama. To see Obama do it to Romney represents a veritable sea change in how the two parties talk about foreign policy on the campaign trail.

And it wasn't just Obama. Sen. John Kerry, in his barn-burner of a convention speech called Romney an "extreme and expedient candidate, who lacks the judgment and vision so vital in the Oval Office." Together, Romney and Ryan were, "the most inexperienced foreign policy twosome to run for president and vice president in decades," said Kerry. He joked that "President Mitt Romney" were "three hypothetical words that mystified and alienated our allies this summer" and he suggested that Romney seemed to be basing his analysis of Russia as America's "number one geopolitical foe" from too many viewings of Rocky IV.

It's not hard to figure out what's going on here -- Democrats for the first time in decades have a decided advantage on foreign policy and national security issues. In fact, it is the one policy area where Obama has consistently polled the best; and with a track record of killing Osama bin Laden, avoiding any terrorist attacks under his presidency, bringing the troops home from Iraq, and improving the public image of the United States on the global stage, why shouldn't Democrats run on it?

And Kerry's critique of the Republican ticket is spot-on. Not only are Romney and Ryan inexperienced, they are alarmingly unserious. As I noted after the Republican National Convention, Mitt Romney devoted a mere 202 words to the foreign policy section of his speech and much of what he said, like accusing Barack Obama of engaging in an apology tour, was either inaccurate or not correct. In recent days, the Romney campaign put out a white paper that chronicles the Obama administration's misdeeds; it's a document that is laughably unserious and demonstrative of a complete lack of understanding about the limits of U.S. military power (the paper actually blames Obama's "lack of leadership" for "failing to ensure a clean Afghan election" in 2009). It shows that the Romney camp is struggling to divine any differences in foreign policy that they can run on -- and so instead appears content to just make stuff up.

The Democrats' new confidence on national security is reminiscent of the manner in which they reduced their political liabilities on a host of domestic issues during the 1990s. They did it by co-opting GOP positions -- rather than moving further to the left and creating a clear distinction between the positions of the two parties they moved more to the right and obscured them. Democrats showed they could be just as "fiscally responsible" on the deficit, just as aggressive on curbing government spending, just as tough on crime and, by some measures, just as punitive on welfare.

Truth be told, Democrats have taken a similar approach on national security. If the rhetoric from the DNC in Charlotte is to be believed, Democrats are still fearful of being tagged as not tough enough on foreign policy, not supportive enough of the military, and not "exceptional" enough in their views of American power. What Democrats have shown, more than anything else, is that they can act and talk as tough and nationalistic as Republicans do.

For example, while Obama deserves credit for taking out bin Laden, the constant crowing about the assassination of America's greatest enemy and frequent chants of "USA! USA!" in Charlotte bordered at times on the ghoulish. But I suppose when you're a party that for years has been tagged with the label of soft, you gotta take political advantages where you can find them.

In triumphalist tones, speaker after speaker praised the administration's attention to the military and his care for veterans. Kerry said of Obama that he is "a commander-in-chief who gives our troops the tools and training they need in war, the honor and help they've earned when they come home; a man who will never ask other men and women to fight a war without a plan to win the peace." While slathering praise on Obama's "spine of steel" in ordering the bin Laden raid, Vice President Joe Biden called on the assembled delegates to "acknowledge, as we should every night, the incredible debt we owe to the families of those 6,473 fallen angels, and those 49,746 wounded." Even Obama took credit for the surge in Afghanistan that he claimed "blunted the Taliban's momentum" and the process of ending America's longest war, which is scheduled to be completed in 2014.

But this is both a little misleading and a little untrue. Under the provisions of the Strategic Partnership Agreement signed with the Hamid Karzai government earlier this year, U.S. military personnel will be remaining in Afghanistan for as much as a decade after the 2014 deadline. Moreover, Kerry's statement that Obama has a plan to win the peace in Afghanistan will no doubt come as a shock to those who have closely followed the U.S. mission there, which appears to focus more on finding a military solution to the war than a political one.

And Biden's treacly praise of American dead and wounded feels awfully hollow when one considers that those numbers include the more than 1,160 Americans killed in Afghanistan since Obama announced an ill-advised surge to that country at the end of 2009. Obama certainly deserves credit for beginning to wind down the war in Afghanistan; but considering that it took implementing the surge to reach that point, praise should clearly be tempered.

Defenders of the president will correctly note that Obama promised to send more troops to Afghanistan as a candidate in 2008 -- an early effort to display national security toughness -- but others might also note his pledge in 2003 to avoid having the United States fight "dumb wars."

Still the constant efforts of Obama and his fellow Democrats to wrap themselves in the mantle of the military and the nation's wounded veterans is smart politics -- for better or worse, it is still seen as the sina qua non of national security credibility and inoculates the president from Republican attacks.

At the same time, Obama played down one of his most successful foreign policy accomplishments -- the New START treaty -- likely so as to not invite attacks from political opponents who would deride him as getting too close Russian President Vladimir Putin. China, a country with whom the United States has worked to more clearly integrate into the global system became a punching bag, as Obama bragged about having "stood up to China on behalf of our workers." And Democrats were happy to assert that they can be as solicitous of Israeli leaders and as adamant in stopping Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon as Republicans (and there was also the humiliating retreat in the Democratic platform committee on the issue of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel).

In fact, in key regards it was difficult in Charlotte to tell the glaring policy differences between Democrats and Republicans -- other than Dems believe themselves to be better stewards of the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy.

It's not that those policy differences don't exist. They certainly do, but it's rather that Democrats didn't necessarily go to great lengths to clarify them or stress the non-commander-in-chief elements of the president's job. If one came away from the DNC believing that Democrats could be just as tough and hawkish and exceptional as Republicans, well, then mission accomplished. The advantage for Democrats is that they look a lot less bellicose then the Romney/Ryan ticket, which frustrated by the co-option of an issue that traditionally favors the GOP, has gone off the neo-con deep end, picking fights with key allies, ramping up the saber rattling on Russia, China, Syria, Iran, and inexplicably Venezuela. But Democratic charges that the Romney/Ryan ticket could represent a return to the first term of George W. Bush should not elide the fact that U.S. foreign policy under Obama looks a lot like George W. Bush's second term.

The irony of all of this is that one could look at Obama's foreign policy record and statements and conclude that he has the potential to be a transformational foreign policy president: one who recognizes the limits of American power and seeks to be a more restrained, internationalist, and diplomatically minded steward of U.S. global leadership.

That he is not willing to express this sentiment as clearly as he is inclined to portray himself as a strong military leader is a sign that Democrats have captured the politics of foreign policy, but they still lack the confidence to make clear policy distinctions between them and Republicans or even more do what Obama promised during the 2008 campaign: change the very mindset of American foreign policy. When it comes to national security Democrats are still largely signing off of a Republican hymnal.

REMOTE_Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

National Security

State of Terror

Why Obama should blacklist Pakistan -- not just the Haqqanis.

In September 2011, Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, astonished the American public when he declared at a congressional hearing that the network of Jalaluddin Haqqani was a "virtual arm" of Pakistan's top spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. Pakistanis were surprised, as Mullen had been one of the most outspoken defenders of Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies and their efforts to combat Islamist terrorists within Pakistan. Since Mullen's head-turning testimony, pressure has continued to mount on the Obama administration, forcing it take a stronger position on Pakistan's intransigent support for one of the most lethal organizations killing Americans and allied forces in Afghanistan.

On Sept. 7, after considerable hemming and hawing, the Obama administration finally announced it would designate the so-called Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization. The call was long overdue. Members of the Haqqani network move back and forth between Pakistan's North Waziristan Agency (and other localities) as well as the Paktiya, Paktika, and Khost provinces of Afghanistan. The network provides sanctuary, manpower, weapons, financing, and other amenities to several other terrorist and insurgent networks such as the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, and al Qaeda, among others. Its financial assets are vast and derive from numerous illicit and licit activities spanning South Asia and the Middle East. The Haqqani network is behind some of the most devastating and complex attacks against United States, NATO, and Afghan forces. U.S. officials hold it responsible for the 2008 assault on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, last September's attack on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters employing rocket-propelled grenades, assassination attempts against President Hamid Karzai and other leaders, as well as numerous kidnappings.

The Obama administration touted its decision to list the Haqqanis as an important step in being able to go after the vast resources of the network -- never mind that the move was taken under considerable congressional pressure.

Why the long wait? Listing the Haqqanis was always considered sensitive because Pakistan views the network as one of its few reliable assets to shape Afghanistan in desirable directions, including restraining India's influence and physical presence. Given the tenterhooks upon which U.S.-Pakistan relations have hung over the last two years, critics of the decision will argue it amounts to further provocation for little payoff. Moreover, some in the U.S. State Department thought that the Haqqani network deserved a seat at the negotiating table even if doing so served no other purpose than placating Pakistan, according my discussions with an array of U.S. officials. Others feared that declaring the Haqqanis a foreign terrorist organization would lead to greater insistence from Congress and other quarters to label Pakistan itself a state that supports terrorism -- a club populated by Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. For this reason, the administration went to great lengths to clarify that this move does not pave the way for putting Pakistan on that inauspicious list.

And that was a huge blunder. Unfortunately, if the administration believed that designating the Haqqani network would have any hope of mobilizing Pakistanis to abandon its jihad habit, categorically removing the threat of a State Department designation from the table vitiated any such potential. Pakistan's response will likely be to double down.

There can be no doubt that Pakistan's unrelenting support for the Afghan Taliban and allied militant organizations, of which the Haqqani network is just one of many, has made any kind of victory -- however defined -- elusive if not unobtainable for the United States and its allies. The crux of the matter: The United States and Pakistan have fundamentally divergent strategic interests in Afghanistan. America's allies, such as India, are Pakistan's enemies, while Pakistan's allies, such as the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban, are America's enemies. Unfortunately, Pakistan's ongoing support for these groups has become an altogether easy hook on which the Americans and their allies have hung their failures in Afghanistan.

But even if Pakistan were not actively undermining U.S. and allied efforts in Afghanistan, would the country be any more stable than it was on Sept. 10, 2001? The United States and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan have stumbled from one strategic disaster to another. The delusional belief in population-centric counterinsurgency is simply the latest chimera that plagued international efforts to bring Afghans a modicum of peace and security. The various national missions strewn across Afghanistan under the ISAF banner have been a disjointed disaster; more like a militarized version of Epcot Center than a cohesive effort. Some of the best development projects these national partners have undertaken have been restricted to their own bases and provisional reconstruction teams (PRTs). One of my most memorable moments during a 2009 visit to Afghanistan occurred at a German PRT, notable for its perfectly paved and LED-lit sidewalks, sleeping quarters equipped with duvets and duvet covers and individually heated commodes. That was surprising enough -- but nothing prepared me for the sight of a scantily clad German rollerblading about the perfectly groomed pavement of the PRT. Needless to say, none of this development was in evidence outside the PRT.

Equally disappointing has been the Afghan government, with its own dogged dedication to remaining a narcokleptocracy. For all the hopes placed on him over the years, here is the stark reality: President Karzai has squandered some 11 years and billions of dollars. Had he shown commitment to better governance, less corruption, and greater transparency, his country may have registered gains that could be sustainable. The most recent "news" about corruption strangling the extraction of national resources serves as only the latest reminder of Karzai's impotence and incompetence.

Pakistan certainly hasn't helped in Afghanistan, but the United States must be clear-eyed about the sources of failure. There is plenty of culpability to go around, and the Haqqanis are only part of a much larger story of disorganization, missed opportunities, and intractable obstacles.

None of which, by the way, gets Pakistan off the hook. After thoroughly accepting its military and political failures in Afghanistan, the United States must also recognize that its haphazard policies toward Pakistan are an enduring part of the problem. For all the buzz about "AfPak," neither the Bush administration nor the Obama team has ever successfully integrated its Pakistan strategy with its Afghanistan strategy. Under Bush, Pakistan continued to partake of U.S. funds as a bona fide partner in the global "war on terror" while continuing to support an array of Islamist terror groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Haqqani network, and various insurgent groups such as the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistanis have long exploited these inconsistencies in U.S. policy to advance their own interests -- by noting, for instance, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conceded in the fall of 2011 that the United States was meeting with the Haqqani network. She defended the engagements by explaining that the United States saw no contradiction in fighting while talking. Pakistan could clearly justify its own inaction in light of America's discordant policy towards the group. And it did.

Why the discord? Part of the U.S. government -- particularly in some quarters of the the military and intelligence communities -- has long supported designating the group as a foreign terrorist organization. However, others, particularly within the U.S. State Department, demurred from doing so, fearing that it would compromise any sort of negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. Why these officials believed that the Haqqani network had anything to offer is somewhat beyond comprehension. Unlike Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is a political actor, the Haqqani network is a provider of violence and little more. The Haqqanis do not offer vote banks. They have not established any reputation for providing much-needed social services. Keeping them in the game therefore amounts to little more than pandering to Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies in the hopes of persuading Pakistan to be a part of some solution to Afghanistan rather than a continued hindrance.

Now that the Haqqani network has been designated, this interagency bickering has been ostensibly silenced. As Heritage Foundation scholar Lisa Curtis correctly noted, this action will enable the U.S. government to enlist more cooperation from other foreign governments and put greater pressure on the network's ability to raise funds in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere. It would also give some hope to Afghans who have looked warily at the various terrorists, insurgents, and warlords seeking to gain control over their country without offering anything positive in return.

Let's be clear: Designating the Haqqani network was a welcome, if belated, move. The problem is that Pakistan's military and intelligence agency has paid no price for continuing to support the very organizations that the United States recognizes as its enemies. After the mistaken U.S. killing of 24 Pakistani troops in November 2011 and Pakistan's subsequent decision to close the ground supply routes to Afghanistan, Pakistani officials watched warily as the United States learned to make do without them. Cutting the cord to Pakistan and thus freeing them to wage their war in Afghanistan, U.S. officials began imagining even bolder steps to punish Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies for continuing to use militant proxies in the region -- many of whom are killing Americans with weapons subsidized by the American taxpayer.

All of which explains why Pakistan eventually backed down. Notably, the Pakistanis did not get a higher price per vehicle, and they got no more apology than they had received in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. What was achieved by this was important: Pakistan could reinsert itself into the game, remain relevant to U.S. interests, and stave off any further aggressive U.S. action.

As the 11th anniversary of 9/11 and the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom looms, Pakistan's commitment to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network has likely intensified rather than diminished. In part, this is because Pakistan believes its strategic interests have been jeopardized, not secured. Pakistan believes that India has exploited the U.S. security umbrella and is poised to harm Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.  While Americans and certainly Indians dismiss these claims, they remain bedrock truth for Pakistan -- diplomatic niceties, financial allurements, and conventional weapons have done little to persuade Pakistan to change course.

If the United States does want Pakistan's military and intelligence agency to change course, the United States needs to change course as well. Designating the Haqqani network -- like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and other Pakistan-based terror groups -- should pave the way for public discussions about declaring Pakistan to be a state that supports terrorism. After all, surely Pakistan's support for terrorism exceeds that of Cuba and Iran, two of the four countries so designated?

The logical and empirical case for listing Pakistan is strong; what about the diplomatic one? Taking the threat of action off the table signaled to Pakistan that the United States is still not serious about the nature of the threat that Pakistan poses. Why would any of Pakistan's men in khaki take this latest designation seriously? Why would they expect that this designation would be any different from that of the other numerous Pakistani groups so designated -- i.e., quickly ignored? The answer is simple: They won't.

The United States needs to either take its counterterrorism goals seriously or stop harping about them. Continuing to berate the Pakistanis for supporting these groups while enabling their ability to do so only erodes U.S. credibility further.

Of course, one of the principal reasons not to declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism is that it is virtually impossible to get off that list. It also punishes the elected civilian government, which has no control over Pakistan's jihad policies even if it objects to them. The United States needs to find a way to be selective in its punitive actions -- there should be a clear path forward with identified and verifiable steps that Pakistan can take to rehabilitate itself over time. Efforts to designate Pakistan as a state that sponsors terrorism must lay out key milestones that would enable it to remove this pariah status should it choose to, and offer inducements for doing so.

The United States must also think more creatively about sanctioning individuals rather than entire organizations, much less the entire country. The United States should consider creative ways to pursue specific individuals for whom there is credible evidence of material support to designated groups. This could include U.S. Department of Treasury moves against personal financial resources, coordinated visa restrictions among the United States and European partners, and coordinated actions through Interpol that could lead to the arrest and prosecution of the individuals in question. All that might make the Pakistani ISI finally sit up and take notice.

Alternatively, the United States can pat itself on the back for finally having the courage to simply state the obvious: that the Haqqani network is a terrorist group that kills Americans. And keep flying home those body bags -- also paid for by the U.S. taxpayer.