Not just one pivot: Time to acknowledge Obama’s broad redefinition of U.S. national security policy

The Obama administration is in the midst of doing something rather extraordinary. While most of the U.S. government and frankly, most major governments worldwide, are mired in a swamp of political paralysis, victims of their own inaction, the president and his national security team are engineering a profound, forward-looking, and rather remarkable change.

It is addressed directly in National Security Advisor Tom Donilon's column in today's Financial Times entitled "America is back in the Pacific and will uphold the rules." It has been manifested in the president's recent trip to Asia and it will be further underscored through Secretary of State Clinton's historic trip to Myanmar later this week.

Superficially, this shift can be and might be perceived to be what Clinton has called "the pivot" from the Middle East to Asia as the principal focus for U.S. foreign policy. But as Donilon's brief article effectively communicates, this shift is far more sweeping and important than has been fully appreciated.

In the beginning of the article, he writes that presidents must struggle to avoid become so caught up in crisis management that they lose sight of the country's strategic goals. Listing the astonishing array of crises President Obama has faced, Donilon then notes that he has nonetheless managed to pursue "a rebalancing of our foreign policy priorities -- and renewed our long-standing alliances, including NATO -- to ensure that our focus and our resources match our nation's most important strategic interests." Asia, he asserts, has become "the centerpiece" of this strategy.

As the article goes on it reveals dimensions of this pivot that have gotten less attention than the simple but nonetheless refreshing restatement of the Obama administration's recognition that -- to oversimplify for contrast's sake -- China is more important to America than Iraq. Because while Donilon writes of regional security agreements and the decision by the administration to embark on a "more broadly distributed, more flexible and more sustainable" defense strategy in the Pacific Basin, what is striking about the article is how often the words it uses and the subjects it references are economic in nature.

Donilon speaks of our priorities in the region as tying to "security, prosperity and human dignity." He defines security needs in terms of concerns about commerce and navigation. He talks about alliances as being "the foundation for the region's prosperity." And he makes a core point of saying that "As part of an open international economic order, nations must play by the same rules, including trade that is free and fair, level playing fields on which businesses can compete, intellectual property that is protected everywhere and market-driven currencies."

Establishing, observing and enforcing international rules are another core theme of the piece and of the statements that Obama, Clinton, Donilon, and others have regularly been underscoring.

The message then is not just that the United States has shifted its regional priorities. It is that the Obama administration has undertaken a broad redefinition of the concept of national security. It has gone back to its roots in that. Washington himself argued that the only reason to even have a foreign policy was to protect commercial interests. But those were simpler times and a different America. We have very real security interests. Violent extremism remains a threat to our national interests in the Middle East and elsewhere. But this president has in a comparatively short time, done more than just "rebalance." He has restored balance, recognizing the deep and essential interplay between our economic and security interests.

That his national security advisor is at the forefront of making this case ... much as his secretary of state has been in her recent New York and Hong Kong speeches on the subject ... illustrates how central this has all become. That national security officials are often planning the lead role in delivering these messages stands in marked contrast to some of Obama's recent predecessors, even Bill Clinton who shared his desire for a broader definition of foreign policy.

So, the "pivot" is actually multi-dimensional. We are not only winding down our wars in the Middle East and shifting our focus to Asia, not just moving away from massive conventional ground wars against terrorist but mastering more surgical drone, intelligence and special forces-driven tactics, not just closing the book on exceptionalist, unilateralist policies and moving to toward multilateralist, rules-based approaches, not just setting aside reckless defense spending and moving toward living within our means, not just ditching the binary "you're with us or you're against us" rhetoric for policies open to more complex realities (as with China, our rival and key partner), but we have also made a pronounced move toward recognizing that the foundations of U.S. national security are also economic and so too are some of our most potent tools.

The talk that somehow because of Guantanamo or because of continued need to go after terror targets Obama was somehow just like Bush needs to end. The change in foreign policy has been sweeping and the results will make almost certainly make America stronger in the long run. It is interesting however, that the only ones who have not seemed to get this message are the Republican candidates for President who appear, based on their last debate performance, to be the only people in America who are nostalgic for panicked, reckless, dangerous, and ineffective security policies of the Bush years.


David Rothkopf

It is time to retire the term "Arab Spring"

It's November, and the revolutions of the Arab Spring still fill the streets from northern Africa across the Middle East. Important votes, massive rallies and outbursts of indefensible government brutality continue to command headlines in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen. Bahrain reels from confirmation of its government's abuses during protests earlier in the year. Jordan trembles at the possibility of its own crisis. Rumblings are felt in Saudi Arabia and in Iran. In none of these places have the uprisings of the Spring produced the full or final reforms sought. In every place, entrenched elites squirm and dig in their heels and try to cling to the privileges and the economic bounties they have controlled for so many decades.

It's no longer Spring, nor is it even Summer any more. And while the reforms sought by brave protesters throughout the region hold the promise of rebirth that made the term Arab Spring so apt, this torturous process will clearly go on not just through the Winter to come, but for years and years. To expect otherwise is to be unrealistic. To hope for the swift transformations that came to Eastern Europe two decades ago will only bring disappointment.

Indeed, it is worth remembering that the Prague Spring, after which this period of tumult and aspiration has been named, took place so long before the advent of real and lasting reforms in Czechoslovakia (now, of course, two countries) that when a spokesperson for Mikhail Gorbachev was asked the difference between his reforms and those of Alexander Dubcek in 1968, he said, "nineteen years." Communism did not fall there until 21 years after the "end" of the Prague Spring. When it did, the transformation that came so "swiftly" was called by an entirely different name -- "the Velvet Revolution."

It is natural to rush a verdict on such events. Typically, we do so as a form of historical punctuation. This, among other things, conveniently lets us accuse enemies of progress being "on the wrong side of history." But when final resolutions are as murky as they are in the modern Middle East, this can also be a two-way street. Those who resist -- or fear -- change when it does not emerge as fully formed as the advocates of revolution had hoped can say that the moment has passed unfulfilled.

Just the other day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a fire-breathing speech denouncing those who supported Egypt's protesters, effectively again throwing his lot in with the devil he knew of Mubarak, and suggesting that in so doing it was not he was "on the wrong side of history" but instead the ones who had it wrong were all those who prematurely declared victory for reformers. "I was told that I'm trying to scare people, that I'm on the wrong side of history," he said, "and that I don't understand where things are going. Well things are moving backward, not forward." He argued that the upheavals in the region were resulting in an "Islamic, anti-western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli, undemocratic wave."

As premature as it was for the hopeful to have declared victory in the wake of the fall of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Yemen, it is just as premature however, for Netanyahu to tossing shovels full of dirt on the aspirations of those who still have the courage to take to the streets. Indeed, the fact that the people of Egypt have not simply rolled-over and accepted the non-reform reforms of SCAF, that they have been willing to fill Tahrir Square again despite violence that has resulted in dozens of deaths and thousands of injuries, suggest that the reformers are resilient and that their impulse for change was not contained in a single moment or season of the year.

Netanyahu is understandably wary of the changes that may come in the wake of current or impending reformulations of neighboring governments. Populists in Egypt and elsewhere have already demonstrated that they are inclined to embrace a harsher stance against Israel because that plays so well politically. Religious parties with a history of intolerance have gained ground. Bad actors are clearly among those seeking a place in new governments or in the evolving elites in the governments of countries shaken by revolution. We don't know how all this will play out. We should be skeptical. And, to paraphrase a wise friend of mine, just because Netanyahu is saying it doesn't necessarily mean it is wrong.

Not all wrong anyway. But when in his speech he posed the question in defense of his earlier skepticism, "I ask today, who here didn't understand reality? Who here didn't understand history?" The answer still may be that he did not. Because "history" doesn't happen in a few months, and "history" does not always follow expected patterns-otherwise there would never be change of any sort. While it is true that the revolts of 2011 may produce frustrating or even dangerous near-term consequences, it is far too early to say what the long term outcomes may be. The people of Egypt have thus far seemed willing to press even their powerful military and stand up to their lawless police until their real demands are met. There is no way they will accept for any extended period the Mubarak-lite caretaker regime offered a fig leaf by the generals. The people of Syria, faced with even more concentrated brutality only seem to get stronger...and the Assad dynasty in that country must be thinking of an endgame at this point. Further, political reforms alone will not be enough anywhere. If real economic opportunity does not come as a consequence of these changes, people will surely return to the streets.

This process -- revolt, resistance, partial reform, renewed pressure, competition among political parties, the demand for results, further pressure -- will undoubtedly take many years. It almost certainly will make security in the region complicated during that time. Meddlesome and opportunistic actors like Iran will only make it worse. So the strategy for Western governments who seek to promote democratic reforms and the rise of pluralism and moderate voices must be one for the long-term. We need to support reform where it means real pluralism, tolerance, a commitment to peace and the creation of genuine opportunity. We need to expect upsets and support the regional players who can help resolve them. But what we dare not do is prematurely reach conclusions -- one way or another -- about events that have only just started to unfold. That said, with eyes wide open to the risks and uncertainties involved, we should acknowledge that which recent events can in fact tell us. Something has hit the region with such force that it has brought down four major governments and a fifth is tottering. It is linked in an entirely new way to democracy, to the interests of the masses and it is powered by new technologies that have changed the dynamics of both politics and revolt throughout this region.

That suggest that even if the end of what we are seeing is so far away as to be unclear that there is a very good chance that we are, despite the denials of Netanyahu and the denial of ruling elites in the effected countries, at the beginning of something truly new and game-changing.

We are witnessing the onset of a new era in the region, a season of change more appropriately measured in years, decades and generation than in months.