Friday, January 16, 2009

US foreign and military policy at a crossroads, but who controls the traffic light?

To some readers it has seemed I have been harping on Barack Obama's foreign policy nominees and what their records suggest about the future of American conduct abroad.

A far more important point that I need to make is that while Obama as President may well have different intentions on foreign policy, we have a decades-old military-political-bureaucratic organization determined to drive US foreign policy in certain directions, and it will actively fight to keep going in those directions regardless of who is President.

This will be the challenge for Obama: can he actually impose his will, not only on events, but on our own militocracy?

Some cases in point: The Joint Chiefs have now authorized release of the unclassified version of their general worldwide threat assessment [read: new places we might have to send troops]:

America’s Joint Forces Command issued their annual “Joint Operating Environment” report, which projects future wars and other potential global threats. This year, the report pointed to two nations which may undergo a “rapid and sudden collapse.” One, unsurprisingly, was Pakistan: a near-bankrupt nation with spiraling inflation, a huge domestic insurgency problem and growing military tension with neighboring India. The other was Mexico.

Is Mexico really on the cusp of turning into a failed state? It seems hard to imagine but the report cautions that “the government, its politicians, police and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and press by criminal gangs and drug cartels.”

Forget all the Libertarian concerns about the drug war de-stabilizing Mexico; this document is a forewarning to all readers inside the government and out that--over the next few years--the US military sees itself as being more interventionist rather than less.

On the other hand, there are signs that the military is adapting to the expectations of new leadership, as in this report about drawing up a new 16-month time-line to remove most combat troops from Iraq:

Pentagon officials said Thursday they will be ready on Inauguration Day with plans for a quick pullout of U.S. combat troops from Iraq if Barack Obama orders one, as he pledged to do during his White House campaign.

A 16-month timeline for withdrawal of battle forces from Iraq is among options being prepared, with an eye to Obama's pledge to call the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the White House on his first day in office with instructions to close down a war he opposed.

"Our military planners do not live in a vacuum," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said. "They are well aware that the president-elect campaigned on withdrawing (combat) troops from Iraq on a 16-month timeline, so it would be only prudent of them to draw up plans that reflected that option."

The really vexing part of this report, however, is contained in one line:

The Pentagon has also hired a contractor, the Rand Corp., to do detailed analyses of the logistics and risks involved in pulling out combat forces under several possible timelines. Results of that study are expected by summer.

If I were President Obama (which most of you, I assume, are thankful that I am not), I would have to be asking myself, Since when did the Pentagon lack the resources to do its own logistics and risk assessment?

There is also some interesting parsing going on in Obama's own rhetoric about foreign policy and the "war on terror," as the Times Online reports:

Barack Obama suggested last night that removing Osama bin Laden from the battlefield was no longer essential and that America's security goals could be achieved merely by keeping al-Qaeda "on the run".

"My preference obviously would be to capture or kill him," he said. "But if we have so tightened the noose that he's in a cave somewhere and can't even communicate with his operatives then we will meet our goal of protecting America."

His comments, in a CBS interview, represent a significant watering down of the "dead or alive" policy pursued by President Bush since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. They also appear to contradict Mr Obama's own statements made in the election campaign.

As recently as October 7, in a presidential debate, Mr Obama said: "We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority."

Yesterday, the President-elect adopted far less aggressive language, saying his "No 1 priority" was to protect America from further attack.

"I think that we have to so weaken [bin Laden's] infrastructure that, whether he is technically alive or not, he is so pinned down that he cannot function," he said. "And I'm confident that we can keep them on the run and ensure that they cannot train terrorists to attack our homeland."

This is an important distinction. I have argued (and gotten into trouble for it at homeland security conferences) that ingoring Bin Laden, even ridiculing him rather than treating him as a significant player in world events (which he no longer is) is the appropriate strategy. Coming on the heels of yesterday's call by the British Foreign Minister to rethink the "war on terror," and today's article by three leading British generals questioning the usefulness of Cold War nuclear deterrents, it seems possible that some new thinking is working its way into the upper levels of Washington and London.

This is a promising development that nonetheless has to be weighed against contradictory signals: the career histories of recent high sub-cabinet level nominees to Pentagon and State Department; the heavy investment of the defense industry in the Obama campaign; and rapidly deteriorating situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan where the new administration has sworn to invest more resources for (according to SecDef Gates) as long as it takes.

We are going to live in interesting times.

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