Feature

Afghan Bloom

Can Afghanistan weather the storms after the U.S. withdrawal?

My parents have a house in Dar ul-Aman, a neighborhood on the western outskirts of Kabul that was once a separate city, when Kabul was much smaller than it is today. To build their house, they bought a plot of land whose parameters were drawn up by King Amanullah's city planners in the 1920s, during Afghanistan's first grand rush to modernization. Then, to settle a dispute over property rights, they bought the land again. This disagreement was one among thousands that have clogged and corrupted the Afghan courts since the early 2000s, when an influx of returned refugees brought landowners who abandoned their properties during the war years into conflict with those who squatted, developed and cultivated abandoned houses and land.

Once the dispute was settled, a wall was built, then a house and then a garden, which grew from roses and spindly shade trees to a profusion of flowers, an orchard, a kitchen garden, a greenhouse, a grape arbor and a raised takht -- a platform covered with the cushions known as taushak and screened with bamboo -- for sitting outdoors even in the heat of summer. On first visiting this walled garden, most say it is like "a piece of old Kabul," suggesting that, to those who remember, it seems like a remnant of the prewar city rather than something constructed in the civil war's wake.

Every time we turn over the soil in the garden, however, we find reminders of other times and other inhabitants of this patch of land. In the first few years, it seemed that the new trees we planted would never succeed in putting down roots, until we finally dug deep enough to remove the last of the stones from the old walls and foundations, most of which dated back to the Amanullah era, when a civil servant or royal cousin was allotted this land and built a family house upon it. Once the trees' roots were settled, we had to turn to the problem of their leaves, which were choking in the dust that blows in from the plains. This problem has only grown more acute over the years, even as more and more gardens are planted across the city, because the dust storms passing through the city now pick up oily particulates from air pollution (mostly vehicle emissions, exacerbated by the poor quality of available fuel) and coat leaves with sticky dirt that must be washed off regularly to allow photosynthesis. The wartime deforestation that caused the dust storms has also stripped the ground of its mineral-rich topsoil, so we bury iron around the fir trees to keep them evergreen.

During my latest visit, this past June, my mother was absorbed in tracking down the source of a persistent drainage problem in one corner of the garden. All hands pitched in to dig a hole, so she could see what might be diverting the water away from the plants that needed it. Barely three feet down, however, the soil started to fall away from the spades. A long, deep trench already ran under fully 10 feet of the garden, just by the west wall, and it was filled with hundreds of spent shells.

Shells the artist's family found in their garden in Dar ul-Aman. 

The soldiers who guard our gate looked over the trench and pronounced that a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher must have been sited there, sometime during the 1991-1996 period when the territory of Dar ul-Aman was contested, first by rival mujahidin groups and later by the mujahidin and the Taliban. It's likely a member of one of the rival groups had fired the RPGs at the Dar ul-Aman palace, where several different groups had camped out during that time. Of course, back then, there was no wall between the plot of land where our house now stands and the Dar ul-Aman palace, to our west; almost every structure for a mile around had been reduced to rubble.

We unearthed the shells and piled them against the wall. We filled in the trench and built a new joi, a small irrigation canal, to carry water to all the plants and trees in that corner of the garden. We couldn't decide what to do with the shells. I think they may still be piled there in the garden, awaiting an outcome.

In Afghanistan, history is very close at hand, buried in shallow trenches all across the landscape. The slightest excavation may uncover another unknown story, or another trace of a story already known. Is it better to walk lightly toward the future, so as not to disturb the dead, or is it better to dig deeper, and settle past accounts before accounting for present needs? Is it possible to plant a new project of modernization in the ruins of old failures without first examining the ruins to discover or remember why and how those past projects failed?

A moment of self-determination is approaching, a moment around which Afghanistan's national imaginary -- and in particular, the Afghan population's collective understanding of its past histories and possible futures from its present vantage point -- will pivot. More than half of Afghanistan's formal legal economy and an unknown portion of its informal "gray" economy are directly or indirectly dependent on either the purchasing power of the U.S. military or the particular demands of the international community of diplomats, security contractors, journalists, bilateral and multilateral organizations, and NGO workers. All of Afghanistan's 34 provinces have been formally -- if not fully -- handed over from U.S. to Afghan military control, as have a number of prisons (though these sometimes retain prisoners under U.S. custody). The final 2014 drawdown of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to a minimal force of 10,000 -- or even zero, according to a rumored alternative plan -- will affect not only the economic sectors directly dependent on the military, but also those that indirectly rely on its presence to provide security for the rest of the international community.

This ripple effect is already becoming visible. As NGO and bilateral operations are reduced or closed in anticipation of a security crisis to come, not only do these organizations stop participating in the Afghan economy as buyers and employers, but they also cease giving the grants that have artificially sustained certain sectors. For example, if the international fund that currently pays the salaries of the Afghan National Army runs out, what will the 100,000-odd men currently "keeping the peace" in volatile provinces do with their job training, which taught them, essentially, how to wage guerrilla warfare?

This scenario may seem familiar to those Afghans who remember that some of the mujahidin groups fighting each other in the civil war of 1992-1995 were originally army-aligned irregular forces -- militias armed by the Soviet-backed government in the 1980s to fight against the mujahidin. Ultimately, when international military and nongovernmental actors pull out simultaneously, the legal economy could well collapse, creating a vacuum that the still-strong illegal economy may readily fill, and transforming Afghanistan into a playground for traffickers of all kinds. This situation, too, will be familiar to Afghans who remained in their country through the years of 1989-1992. When Soviet funding was withdrawn from the government and Western funding from the jihad dried up, minerals, antiquities and opium were all sold to finance the continuing war.

If the legal economy does crash in 2014, the collapse would severely test current social, cultural, and class structures, which are already marked by manifold divisions and contradictions. The religious and cultural divisions between town and country or center and province, for example, have already proved the downfall of reformers from Amanullah onward. Logically, this tension should have (at least partially) dissolved in the mass diaspora of the 1980s and 1990s and return of refugees in the 2000s, since many who left rural villages but returned to live in cities have created regular avenues of communication between the cities where they have settled and the villages where their relatives remained. Instead, new class and cultural divisions have arisen between those who spent their years of exile in the West, many of whom gained second citizenships and the freedom to move across borders, and those who lived as perpetual refugees in Iran or Pakistan, whose collective fate remains tied to that of Afghanistan. Moreover, some of the new city dwellers have set up entire neighborhoods of informal housing organized along lines of previous alignments -- with their village, tribe, ethnic identity, mother tongue or some combination of the above. Where the oldest Kabul neighborhoods were named for, and organized around, professions (like Kocha-e-Kharabat, the street of musicians), and mid-century neighborhoods were planned to house the civil service as it grew the ranks of the middle class, these new neighborhoods reproduce in miniature -- and in alarming proximity -- the country's internal borders and conflicts.

If Afghanistan remains a nation divided (whether between center and province, town and country, tribe and polity, fundamentalism and secularism or opportunists and idealists), then many, if not all, of the mistakes of the past are bound to be repeated. If the Afghan state remains unwilling to engage in collective reckoning with those divisions, contradictions and mistakes, then the fault lines already present will only continue to widen, until they crack the state apart.

Despite the parliamentary pardon already applied to all the crimes of the civil war period, there is an unspoken ban on discussing them in public forums, because some of the main actors of that period are still in power. Consequently, the civil war period still hangs over the present like a black cloud, eternally threatening to return. Contrast this with the communist period, which is more or less freely discussed, to the point where people compare prison stories over dinner and wax nostalgic about President Mohammad Najibullah (the last leader to attempt a real reconciliation between fundamentalists and secularists, and who paid for this attempt with his life). No one fears a revival of the Afghan communist project, perhaps because its most visible exponents are mostly in exile, imprisoned, or dead. And yet, some Kabulis will admit to having been members of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in the 1970s or 1980s; remnants of the Maoist parties have survived to this day; and student strikes at Kabul University are beginning to follow a pattern eerily reminiscent of the mid-1970s. Nonetheless, a recurrence of Afghan communism is not feared, because that past has lost the awful power of the unspoken, the compulsion to repeat the trauma not disclosed, now that it has been aired out in daylight.

A real process of truth telling and reconciliation should have been the foundation of the disarmament project undertaken in the early 2000s. This was made impossible, however, by the U.S. insistence on including many of the people whose past acts needed to be addressed in the new government, as reward for their assistance in waging the American offensive. While it may well have been impossible in that moment to construct a coalition government without some participation on their part, a space should first have been made for Afghan mechanisms like the jirga and Pashtunwali to air and redress the wounds of the war years. After the Afghan presidential election and U.S. withdrawal in 2014, such a process will once again become possible. If the groups now subsumed under the name Taliban are to be brought into dialogue with, or find representation within, the post-withdrawal government, as recent prisoner exchanges and releases seem to indicate, a real process of reconciliation will become more necessary than ever, and moreover will have to be updated to include the 2001-2014 period.

In order for Afghanistan, like our garden, to provide food and comfort and shelter and delight, some digging will have to be done. Some unpleasant truths may have to be uncovered, and some ugly histories dragged into the light. But once the muck has been raked through, those poisons that linger from the unexamined past, recurring in generation after generation, may finally be leached out.

Sour cherries grow in the artist’s family garden in Dar ul-Aman, Afghanistan

* * *

My parents' garden was not planted, as some might assume, during the first hopeful years after the Bonn Agreement. It is a product of, as much as a retreat from, the more turbulent period that followed the presidential election of 2004. The garden is, essentially, an act of faith. Each season's planting is another bet on the proposition that the Afghanistan imagined in the garden will exist outside its walls someday.

This proposition is unlikely to yield returns unless more people start making the same bet. If the only future imagined by and for the Afghan population is a return to the chaos and destruction of the civil war, or a descent into the special hell reserved for countries that, like Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have both too many minerals and too many strongmen, that darkest future is almost certain to arrive. If instead we imagine a range of possible futures, each becomes only as sure as its believers, those who will it into existence through their actions, hope and faith.

I will be back in the garden next year, picking sour cherries for jam and lettuces for salad, walking the paths along the walls, eavesdropping on conversations in the takht and inviting friends, colleagues and students for tea and kolcha, the sweet-salty Afghan cookies. I will be performing -- as I am now, and as my parents do every day -- our own small articles of faith: bringing the world into the garden, so that the garden may begin to bleed into the world.

Photos be Mariam Ghani

Feature

The 12-Step Plan

A dozen bold suggestions for the Obama administration to recover its mojo -- fast.

President Barack Obama's decision to cancel his trip to Asia makes vividly undeniable what has been clear in certain quarters for some time: The administration's foreign-policy agenda has lost its mojo. Watered-down Syria resolutions, overhyped Iranian diplomatic overtures, and an understandable preoccupation with the U.S. fiscal melodrama do not obscure a fundamental truth -- Obama is really struggling on foreign policy. This is obvious to anyone who has served in positions of responsibility in the foreign-policy arena, and the American public has noticed too. With the highest disapproval ratings on foreign policy in his entire tenure, it is time for Obama and his foreign-policy team to step back and reconsider what they are doing. He has plenty of time to turn things around, but accomplishing that feat will require some fresh strategic thinking.

The pundit community is mostly focused on how to jump-start a healthy domestic political process. But even if fixing the domestic political dysfunction is indeed "Job No. 1," there is plenty of work to be done on the foreign relations front as well. Moreover, Obama and his team must also plan for the undesirable contingency that the domestic political crisis could worsen before it improves. We may face months of continued paralysis at home, and the international challenges will not wait for the resolution of the domestic challenges. The president cannot afford to let his foreign-policy languish -- or worse, to try to obscure domestic setbacks with faux diplomatic "breakthroughs" that come at the cost of sacrificing long-term U.S. national security objectives.

What Obama needs is a rebooted foreign-policy agenda, one that identifies real opportunities and confronts real challenges, and that can be pursued even if the domestic political crisis lingers. As the "loyal opposition," we at FP's Shadow Government blog have not been shy to point out when and where we think the Obama administration's policies have been wanting. But we are patriots first and Republicans second, and for our nation's sake we fervently do want to see American foreign policy succeed. We are also all former policymakers, and we know firsthand the profound difficulties in crafting and implementing successful policies. Many of us served during the second term of George W. Bush's administration, so we understand what it feels like to work in a presidency facing declining approval ratings, widespread pundit criticism, violent turbulence in the Middle East, the persistent threat of terrorism, and agonizing challenges elsewhere in the world.

We also understand how hard it is to manage the daily deluge of the inbox, let alone find even a few minutes to think about new policy ideas. With that in mind, our contributors have each taken up the question "What one specific new policy proposal can I suggest to the Obama administration that could be realistically achieved in the next three years?" So, for our friends and readers in the Obama administration -- and we know there are at least a few of you -- we hope you will find the following helpful.

Peter Feaver: Time for a New Strategic Narrative

John Hannah: Settle Scores With Those Who Have Killed Americans

Mike Green: Save the Pivot to Asia

Tom Mahnken: Reinforce the Pivot With a Surveillance Network in the Pacific

Mark R. Kennedy: Fast-Track Trade Promotion Authority

José R. Cárdenas: Think Trade in the Americas

Jean M. Geran: Protect Young Hearts and Minds

Dan Twining: Leverage the Shale Revolution to Fuel American Primacy

Will Inboden: Build a Partnership for Energy in North America

Paul Bonicelli: Reach Out to Our Allies

Dov Zakheim: Help King Abdullah II Now

Kori Schake: Return to Smart Power

 

Peter Feaver: Time for a New Strategic Narrative

President Barack Obama needs a new strategic narrative, explaining his vision of America's role in the world. It is unlikely that Obama will be able to change how he acts in the world without changing how he talks about the world.

Obama has stuck with a strategic narrative that I dub "the tides of war" narrative for well over five years. It consists of a series of stark claims that show up repeatedly in presidential set-piece speeches and extemporaneous remarks:

  • The tides of war are receding.
  • Al Qaeda is decimated, so the threats we face are receding.
  • We are ending the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
  • It is time to stop doing nation-building abroad and start doing it at home.

The narrative has been tweaked over the years. For instance, as the terrorist threat continues to metastasize in ways that are undeniable, the al Qaeda boast gets qualified with "core al Qaeda" or "the original core al Qaeda that planned the 9/11 attacks." Likewise, it used to be that we were "responsibly" ending the Iraq and Afghanistan wars -- or even that we were "ending those wars more responsibly than we began them" -- but as that boast has grown manifestly hollow, it has reduced to simply claiming that we are ending them.

But the central thesis of the narrative has stayed intact, and it remains the most parsimonious predictor of Obama's policy choices.

This narrative has also worked, in a political sense, quite well for Obama. It went head-to-head with Sen. John McCain and former Gov. Mitt Romney's alternative narratives in competing for the hearts and minds of the American public and beat McCain and Romney soundly.

It continues to work politically for Obama, which is why he sticks with it even though it is clearly dysfunctional in a policy sense. Every tenet in the thesis has received a thumping from world events in recent years, so, to expert ears, the strategic narrative sounds increasingly pathological.

Even many supporters of Obama are likely to concede that this strategic narrative is dissonant in light of the policy fiascos in Syria and Egypt, not to mention a looming potential fiasco in Afghanistan. Critics from outside the president's inner circle would say the narrative yielded those fiascos -- and would add additional bitter fruit in Libya, Iraq, and Iran.

Even if this narrative is held more or less blameless for these policy failures, it should be obvious that it is past time to replace this narrative with one that better accounts for the reality of America's sharply deteriorated global position. A new narrative would not need to embrace declinism -- it could easily encompass renewal. But it must begin with reality, and the administration's prevailing narrative does not.

John Hannah: Settle Scores With Those Who Have Killed Americans

Fairly or not, in the eyes of the world President Barack Obama's handling of the Syrian crisis has laid waste to what little remained of his claim to be a credible commander in chief. How to redeem his standing in short order? It won't be easy, but he could do worse than fall back on what increasingly appears to be one of his few core competencies: killing terrorists. The hit on Osama bin Laden was the scene of Obama's greatest triumph -- one that he mercilessly rode to re-election in 2012. A worthy sequel would be raining down a similar form of raw justice on bin Laden's sidekick and successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, or those responsible for the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleagues in Benghazi, Libya, a year ago.

The president would be assured of near-unanimous approval at home. Foreign enemies would receive an always-useful reminder that American blood can't be spilt on the cheap. The dangerous perception setting in around the world of Obama's incredible shrinking presidency, which the Syria debacle has kicked into overdrive, might be stemmed, at least momentarily, as friend and foe alike see potent evidence that the U.S. president remains a force to be reckoned with internationally -- a powerful, confident leader requiring their respect and fear rather than the America-doubting declinist who increasingly inspires only contempt and disdain. Finally, in the case of Zawahiri, his sudden demise would likely render an immediate strategic benefit, helping to disrupt and short-circuit the resurgence of al Qaeda's global threat, which has become so apparent in recent weeks and months.

The downside here, of course, is that Obama's ability to act against these high-value targets is largely dependent on the intelligence he's provided. But he's by no means a passive bystander in this regard. One hopes that he has made crystal clear with the powers that be at Langley that settling America's scores with the bloody masterminds of 9/11/2001 and 9/11/2012 is among his very highest priorities.

One of my most vivid memories of George W. Bush was that the man almost never let a meeting at which his intelligence chiefs were present pass without taking a moment to press them on the issue: "Where are we with Nos. 1 and 2 (bin Laden and Zawahiri)?" Year in and year out. Whether the particular meeting was about al Qaeda or the future of Cuba post-Fidel, it didn't matter. It was never far from his mind. The intelligence community knew it and acted accordingly in setting its collective priorities. And on May 2, 2011, Obama and the country reaped the benefits of the intelligence community's outstanding work and Bush's single-mindedness. It's imperative that this kind of doggedness and resolution with respect to the national interest once again emanate with clarity from the Oval Office.

Mike Green: Save the Pivot to Asia

All across East Asia, Chinese diplomats are going forward with a consistent message: We told you the Americans would pivot out of Asia and that we would still be here -- and we have long memories. The emerging consensus from Bangkok to Tokyo is that the combination of sequestration and the departure of muscular Asianist Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has left America's friends and allies in the region exposed. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel just had a reasonably good trip to Southeast Asia, and the Defense Department has tried to preserve budgets for exercises in the Pacific, but our allies can do the math and see the possibility of annual defense cuts of $50 billion -- about the size of Japan's annual defense budget.

If that leaves the United States with seven operational carriers as some analysts predict, our maritime allies in Asia will notice, especially when the one carrier in Yokosuka keeps deploying to the Persian Gulf. Southeast Asians always push for the United States to do more on the Middle East peace process (because of their substantial Muslim populations), and then they panic when that diplomatic push comes at their expense, which is what they saw when Secretary of State John Kerry cut short his trip to the region to attend to negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. (Then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice fell into the same trap in 2005 and 2006 and paid a long-term reputational price in ASEAN.) In Japan there is concern that the Pentagon is holding the Japanese at arm's length with respect to planning for any crisis with China in the East China Sea. This hesitance suggests that the U.S. side either doesn't trust Japan or isn't ready to plan because of the uncertainties caused by sequestration.

Either way, it is prompting hedging behavior in Tokyo -- where the Shinzo Abe's administration would clearly prefer to work through the U.S.-Japan alliance but has also let it be known that the Defense Ministry will examine whether the Japan Self-Defense Forces need more "counterstrike" capabilities of their own.

When the U.S. "pivot" to Asia was first announced in 2010, it was criticized for being too military, with trade being the neglected piece of U.S. Asia policy. While the administration still has to deliver trade promotion authority on Capitol Hill, the perception in Asia is that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is now the most reliable part of U.S. Asia policy. It is suddenly the political/military piece that is lagging. The White House needs to get back to "shaping" strategic assumptions in Asia. The 2010-2011 pivot and rebalance, for all its hype, actually did that to a significant degree. Hagel's recent trip only partially checked the box. The president has to decide that his rebalance to Asia goes beyond speechifying. This would be a good time for National Security Advisor Susan Rice to call a principals committee meeting assessing the state of the rebalance to Asia. And rather than inviting each agency to bring its own report card, she should encourage an honest "red team" on what the perception in the region really is. It is fixable, if there is a will to lead.

Tom Mahnken: Reinforce the Pivot With a Surveillance Network in the Pacific

The announcement of the "pivot" or rebalance of U.S. forces to the Pacific was one of the hallmarks of the Obama administration's first term in office. Capitalizing on developments that had been under way since early in George W. Bush's administration, it recognized the growing strategic weight of Asia. However, the effort appears both to observers in the United States and to allies and friends in the region to have lost steam in the administration's second term. One way to reinvigorate the rebalance, reassure our allies and friends, and generate collective responses to crisis and aggression would be to establish a coalition surveillance network in the Western Pacific.

The United States is stepping up its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets in the region, including the deployment of Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Guam. Moreover, a growing number of America's allies and friends in the region are interested in acquiring new ISR assets to help them increase their situational awareness of the region.

Although the United States has information-sharing agreements with allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region, most are bilateral. By contrast, a coalition ISR architecture would be designed to be open to all: States would contribute assets and would in return receive the common operating picture the network generated.

A coalition ISR architecture in the Western Pacific would have several advantages. First, it would provide the United States and its regional allies and friends a common picture of activity in the Western Pacific. Such a shared understanding may be a necessary precondition to collective action. Second, such an approach could represent a significant deterrent to hostile action. It would be harder for an aggressor to act without being caught, and an attack on the network would amount to an attack on all its members.

A concrete outreach to America's allies and friends to establish a broad ISR network in the Western Pacific could be just what Barack Obama's administration needs to get its foreign-policy mojo back.

Mark R. Kennedy: Fast-Track Trade Promotion Authority

When discussing the working relationship between the White House and Congress, "fast track" is probably not a phrase that comes to mind. However, for Barack Obama's administration, getting "fast track" back in the lexicon, specifically with respect to international trade, is an essential task in order to reinvigorate his second term and benefit the global economy.

Fast-track negotiating, or trade promotion authority, allows the president to work on international commerce agreements subject to congressional approval without amendment or filibuster. This authority lapsed in 2007, and the United States' ability to engage in trade talks has suffered since.

The lack of fast-track authority has been a severe hindrance to progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Simply put, Asian and European nations aren't going to get serious about a deal if Congress is able to sidle up to the table at the eleventh hour and change the terms and conditions or allow a deal to wither on the vine in committee.

Obama highlighted trade in his most recent State of the Union address for good reason. Expanded trade holds the promise of resparking economic growth and creating high-paid jobs without additional government spending. He will need to do more in order to take trade from talking point to action item.

Chairmen in the relevant House and Senate committees are working on the details of a trade promotion authority bill, but there is more than a fair amount of skepticism over a fast-track renewal in both chambers.

To break through and get fast-track authority, the president must take his message directly to his former colleagues and explain why making it easier to approve trade deals can be a win-win for both political parties and, more importantly, for the American public. That sort of high-level face-to-face inside game has been lacking from a White House that prefers scripted speeches for the television cameras, but it will be necessary to achieve this goal.

Success would create jobs and also give the United States an opportunity to set the rules of the road for international trade, countering rising challenges from command economies like China. Obama should get trade promotion authority and the economic opportunities it can foster on a fast track to the top of his second-term agenda.

José R. Cárdenas: Think Trade in the Americas

There is still time for the administration to salvage a legacy in the Western Hemisphere, and it requires no heavy lift or big-ticket aid projects. It merely requires political will on the trade front. What has been obscured in the region over the past several years by the antics of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his acolytes is a group of countries that have eschewed the retrograde populist model and are eager to join the international trade regime. Specifically, they make up the Pacific Alliance, the most positive recent development in Latin America that no one has ever heard of. Made up of Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico, these modern, forward-leaning governments want to integrate their respective economies and open a gateway to trade with Asia. The administration has the opportunity to advance this integration momentum in a variety of ways, both substantive and symbolic. It can push for Colombia's inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership; it can initiate high-level discussions between the Pacific Alliance and NAFTA countries (Mexico is a member of both) on ways to promote integration; to demonstrate a commitment to hemispheric trade integration, it can negotiate the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership as a bloc under NAFTA. (As Mark Kennedy points out in this forum, however, all this is just busy work without trade promotion authority.) The point is to communicate a high-level seriousness of purpose to help our neighbors expand their trade horizons. After all, a more prosperous neighborhood is a more secure neighborhood. Some in Washington unfortunately believe that no trade agenda in the Americas is worth pursuing without Brazil, Latin America's largest economy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, it would be ideal if Brazil were at the table, but that is not going to happen until the Brazilian political establishment sees it is in the country's interest to do so. Meanwhile, there is much to be done. And, who knows, perhaps Brazil's political calculus will change when it sees the trade-integration train leaving the station without it. In any case, the administration has an excellent opportunity to take hemispheric relations to an entirely new level with a robust trade agenda. A failure to move forward will be a substantial loss for all concerned.

Jean M. Geran: Protect Young Hearts and Minds

A surge in the numbers of children crossing national borders without adults creates an opportunity for the United States to lead with a global initiative to protect them. Unaccompanied children may be refugees or migrants, but either way they are highly vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. They also are difficult to track and assist given limited data and information sharing across borders. Receiving countries, including the United States, struggle to provide adequate services. While various U.S. agencies already are tasked with protecting this population, all would benefit from a White House initiative generating more support and resources. The U.S. Action Plan on Children in Adversity provides a whole-of-government strategy that includes this population, but data collection and sharing, critical to protecting these children, is a diplomatic challenge that lends itself to a transnational approach.

Two regional challenges highlight how such an initiative could serve U.S. national interests. By helping Syrian refugee children or youth migrating to the United States from Central America, we could improve our bilateral relationships and bolster America's image in each region, especially among youth. My colleague Kori Schake has argued that a refugee-focused intervention in Syria could attract support from the United Nations and Arab League. Of the 2 million refugees who have fled Syria, three-quarters are women and children, and half are under 18. Many of those are unaccompanied. Meanwhile, the number of unaccompanied children migrating to the United States from Central America has tripled in the last two years. Our social services and immigrant detention centers are not well equipped for this population and lack sufficient data, as do countries like Guatemala and Mexico working to reintegrate them back home.

The European Union has similar challenges and has put together a five-year strategy that stresses the need for better data and information sharing. Unaccompanied youth, from Afghanistan especially, are arriving in significant and increasing numbers. Even sympathetic countries like Norway are not sure what to do with them. This is a policy area with potential for proactive regional collaboration and multilateral diplomacy. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, along with a strong team at the U.S. mission in Geneva, is well suited to lead the charge with the relevant international organizations. It's one way to lead from the front and win the hearts and minds of the next generation.

Dan Twining: Leverage the Shale Revolution to Fuel American Primacy

In a tumultuous world, President Barack Obama's statecraft has lacked ambition, creating an impression of American retrenchment and decline. This is ironic, because he is presiding over the foreign-policy equivalent of winning the lottery. Access to shale gas and tight oil through fracking and other unconventional technologies has transformed America's energy outlook. North America will soon be energy independent, with the United States pivoting from being one of the world's largest energy importers to potentially one of its largest exporters. As an emerging energy superpower, the United States is now in position to wield a potent new asset to shore up its primacy in a changing world.

In consultation with Congress, the president should announce a new international energy strategy that primes America's economic pump while at the same time fulfilling critical strategic objectives. Beyond meeting U.S. domestic requirements, the policy of the United States should be to export excess natural gas and shale oil supplies, preferentially to America's partners and allies. What better way to stack the deck in a more competitive world than providing secure energy guarantees to countries most likely to be hospitable to American interests?

The U.S. National Intelligence Council predicts that demand for energy will grow by 50 percent between today and 2030 as rising middle classes in the emerging powers embrace Western habits of consumption. Besides having cutting-edge innovation and access to advanced technologies, countries with an ensured energy supply will enjoy a comparative advantage against others, like China, that do not. Reliable energy supply lines will help dampen conflict in areas like the South China Sea and Persian Gulf, where abundant oil and gas deposits otherwise risk falling prey to militarized great-power competition.

Washington has used free trade agreements as a strategic tool to boost U.S. alliances in Europe, East Asia, and Latin America. It should employ privileged energy partnerships for similar purposes. The list would include European states that no longer want to be hostage to Russian blackmail over the provision of natural gas. It would include East Asian economies like Japan and South Korea, which currently import nearly all their energy resources from volatile regions like the Persian Gulf over sea lanes vulnerable to maritime disruption. It would also include India, whose development lags from energy bottlenecks that could hamstring the country's emergence as a top-tier economy and U.S. security partner. It might even include Pakistan, where energy gridlock risks weakening a nuclear-armed state whose collapse would be a national security nightmare.

Such a policy would also help the United States achieve important near-term goals. It would be far easier to discourage our friends from buying oil and gas from rogue states like Iran were America in a position to provide those resources itself.

Other resource-rich powers employ national energy assets as a strategic tool. The United States can learn from their example. The difference is that whereas Russia has used its oil and gas as a weapon to punish neighboring countries unwilling to do its bidding, and Qatar has used its energy wealth to support reactionary forces like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the United States can wield energy supply as a tool to strengthen liberal hegemony in world affairs.

Domestic protectionists will predictably cry foul -- but American energy companies need the economies of scale provided by global markets. Other opponents will argue that we should allow the free market to operate without hindrance, even if that means selling oil and gas in unlimited quantities to strategic rivals. Of course, the United States does not do that with other strategic resources like military hardware. Still others will ask: Why should Obama announce such a generous policy without demanding reciprocity in other areas?

The answer is that the future of American leadership will depend critically on the health of the U.S. economy and the availability of like-minded, capable allies to help us sustain and strengthen the international liberal order. Enhancing the strength, prosperity, and independence of friendly centers of power in the international system will be vital to managing a more multipolar world -- while ensuring that it continues to tilt in America's direction.

At an individual level, it would be like winning the lottery -- and rather than burning through the windfall, investing it for high future returns. It would be a timely reminder that the United States remains the partner of choice in a more competitive world. Rather than being eclipsed by the rising rest, the United States still has the power to shape, rather than be shaped by, the emerging global order.

Will Inboden: Build a Partnership for Energy in North America

As Dan Twining points out, it is one of history's ironies that a revolution in North American energy has taken place over the last five years during Barack Obama's presidency -- yet the administration has had almost nothing to do with it and seems indifferent if not unaware of it. The shale revolution has turned North America into a hydrocarbon superbloc. At current estimates, the United States, Canada, and Mexico together account for almost a quarter of global shale oil and gas reserves, a proportion almost sure to increase with further discoveries. With over three years remaining in his second term, there is still time for Obama to pivot and embrace this energy renaissance, and in the process strengthen America's frayed ties with our two continental neighbors.

The frictions with Canada over the gratuitously delayed Keystone XL pipeline decision are well-known. Less noticed have been the remarkable changes in Mexico during the first year of new President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration. Peña Nieto has taken an audacious first step toward liberalizing Mexico's sclerotic state oil monopoly with his proposal to allow private investment in Pemex. Nor is this an isolated gesture; working with a divided legislature, Peña Nieto has succeeded in getting support from all three major parties to pass a series of substantial reforms.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and next year the 20th anniversary of its enactment. In policy terms, NAFTA stands as one of the most consequential legacies of the foreign policy of Bill Clinton's administration, and politically NAFTA represents the best of bipartisanship, given the Clinton White House's successful appeals for the strong Republican congressional support that ensured its passage.

Obama could begin with a modest step of first visiting North Dakota, a state with surging oil production that is now second only to Texas in barrels produced, but a state that Obama has never once visited as president. And perhaps follow that by convening a "North America Energy Summit" in Texas with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Peña Nieto, to announce a new continental energy initiative?

In foreign-policy terms, such an initiative could help elevate the U.S.-Mexico relationship beyond the fraught issues of drug cartels and immigration, and it could likewise help restore the U.S.-Canada relationship to better footing. It would also be a boon to the still-struggling American economy.

Such an initiative would need a name, of course, and the irresistible choice is "Partnership for Energy in North America" -- yes, PENA for short. ¿Por qué no?

Paul Bonicelli: Reach Out to Our Allies

Given the state of the world's problems, there is not a lot that President Barack Obama can do to improve the U.S. position or his own image, especially because he helped cause much of the trouble. For over four years, he has put foreign policy on the back burner and considered it a distraction from his domestic priorities. When he finally acts -- as in the latest case of Syria -- he's too late, proposes too little, dithers, and then gives the initiative to others or blames others for inaction or his own failures. He ignores the most important job any president has. Not that this bothers him; it appears to be the policy dictated by his post-colonial and globalist mindset.

But it has come with a price: More and more observers point out the danger to the United States and the world of an AWOL superpower, and to Obama's role in creating this state of affairs. It is time to do something about it.

How about surprising everyone by crafting a serious national security strategy and using it to really become a leader in the task that is the president's most important constitutional duty? Through both diplomacy and the use of military force, he should move beyond his comfort zone and start reaching out to shore up alliances with long-standing and important allies of America around the globe, all in an effort to do something for our interests and for world peace. It would pay dividends for him and certainly for the United States in the longer run.

Rather than focusing on small-ball projects born of his proclivity to mimic academic elites' preferences, such as trying to reduce the risk of nuclear war by offering to unilaterally cut U.S. arms stocks, Obama should be more like Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. That is, we have real flesh-and-blood enemies out there who are always trying to kill us and who sometimes succeed. Name them and start making it hard for them to sleep at night. And he can do this in a way that should appeal to him: start rebuilding and strengthening relationships, both personal and diplomatic, with Israel, Japan, South Korea, Britain, Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Latin American states that fear and abhor the dictatorships in Venezuela and Cuba. Be proud of our natural role in the world and give our allies a reason to take heart. Like Bush 41 and Bush 43, he should pick up the phone and call someone, every day.

But I won't hold my breath. He doesn't take advice from anyone, certainly not the opposition, and he doesn't like to engage in foreign policy unless he has something to do victory laps about. But before you can do the victory laps, you have to do the hard work of scoring for the team.

Dov Zakheim: Help King Abdullah II Now

With civil war raging in neighboring Syria and refugees flooding his country, with the allegiances of his Palestinian population uncertain and his once-loyal East Bankers restive, King Abdullah II of Jordan is less secure on his throne than ever before. This closest and most vulnerable of America's allies needs help, and he needs it now. It is not beyond America's financial capacity, even in this time of straitened budgets, to provide a significant infusion of funding to the king in his time of need. President Barack Obama should announce a new aid plan for Jordan, totaling at least $5 billion for each of the next three years. In so doing Obama would ensure that the king can cope with the influx of refugees from his neighbors, stabilize the Jordanian economy, and reinforce the loyalty of his Palestinian and East Bank subjects. And the president should not wait for others, be they Europeans or Gulf states, to pitch in. Washington's image as a staunch supporter of its Arab allies has taken a battering in the past few years. It is for America, and America alone, to show that it is not a fair-weather friend, but rather one that is once again at the ready to help its allies in times of their greatest need.

Kori Schake: Return to Smart Power

Barack Obama's administration came into office with a great clanging of the need for "smart power," an effective orchestration of diplomacy, intelligence, military, and economic levers intended to rebalance American national security policy away from a perceived overreliance on the military. In practice, the Obama administration has been "no power," retracting the threat of military force without replacing it with an activist diplomatic engagement and a better understanding of world events, or integrating military operations into a broader strategy; and the administration is coming very late to the understanding of how trade agreements, market access, and foreign aid cement political relationships through economic opportunity.

Stabilizing military involvement was foreclosed in Iraq, ostensibly to be replaced with "the largest military-to-civilian transition since the Marshall Plan," according to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. Except that turned out to be a bust when the Iraqis didn't want what was on offer, Congress was aghast at the cost and dangerously amateur planning by the State Department, and the White House's inattention conveyed just how much it wanted Iraq written off. The time-limited military surge in Afghanistan was ostensibly to be matched with a "civilian surge" that never materialized. Intelligence has narrowed its aperture to targeting and killing known terrorists, leaving uncovered its fundamental mission of helping political leaders understand broad trends and specific developments -- as evidenced by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testifying to Congress that we know less about the composition of rebel groups in Syria now than we did a year ago. Trade agreements languished until the recent appointment of an activist U.S. trade representative, but are still unlikely to reach conclusion. The Obama administration acts as though the only alternatives were doing nothing or war on the Iraq or Afghanistan model, when (as Lincoln Bloomfield's recent piece on Syria in the National Interest solidly demonstrates) there are many means at our disposal to affect an enemy's calculus.

The truth is that smart power is more difficult by far to practice than is overreliance on military or paramilitary tools. The president can command the military; the Pentagon even in these days of sequestration is well funded and immensely capable; the use of force has identifiable near-term effects that help gauge policy adjustment. All those things are harder with the more nebulous levers of diplomatic, intelligence, and economic tools. And they require sustained attention that the administration is loath to give, from Libya to Mexico. Yet successful national security policies -- especially cost-effective, sustainable policies -- require the melding of all these and more.

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