Monday, 15 August 2022
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By George Friedman

President Barack Obama's speech in Oslo marking his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize was eloquent, as most of his speeches are.

It was also enigmatic both for its justification of war and for his speaking on behalf of the international community while making clear that as commander in chief, his overarching principle is to protect and defend the United States.

In the end, it was difficult to discern precisely what he meant to say. An eloquent and enigmatic speech is not a bad strategy by a president, but it raises this question: At the end of his first year, what precisely is this president's strategy abroad? Ironically, it is useful to consider Obama in the light of the last president who dominated and defined his time: Ronald Reagan, a man as persuasive, polarizing and enigmatic as the current president.

These two men share much, including charisma and a desire to revive American power abroad. But Obama is about to diverge from this parallel. Whereas Reagan chose to reassert American power to bring U.S. allies back into line, Obama seems to be choosing to rejuvenate American alliances to revive national power. And this choice constitutes the largest foreign policy risk to his presidency in the months and years ahead.

A Year of Presidential Dominance

Obama dominated 2009 as no freshman-year president has since Reagan. As with Reagan, the domination came not only from character and charisma but also from deep public disappointment with his predecessor.

Reagan succeeded Jimmy Carter, who was seen as having led the country into the double miasma of a major economic crisis and a global crisis of confidence in the United States. The Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981 raised the question of the limits of American power and the extent to which U.S. allies could count on American power. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan drove home the diminished state of American power, as the United States seemed incapable of responding.

George W. Bush very much paralleled Jimmy Carter, as different as their respective ideologies seemed. Like Carter, Bush's presidency also culminated in a grave economic crisis, while his foreign policy had created deep distrust worldwide about the limits and effectiveness of U.S. power.

It is ironic in the extreme that both Reagan and Obama ran on platforms emphasizing the need to do something about Afghanistan and castigating the prior president for alleged fecklessness with dealing with it. At some point, someone should write a history of the last American generation and its Afghan obsession. This has become a symbol of our times, and not for obvious reasons.

Reagan vs. Obama

The similarities and profound differences between Reagan and Obama are a good starting place for understanding the last year. Reagan took office in a powerful country that seemed to have lost its confidence, and he saw his mission as restoring both American self-confidence in its global mission and its appetite for pursuing it.

To Reagan, the American-led anti-Soviet alliance was in jeopardy not only because of the Carter presidency but also because of Gerald Ford (whom Reagan had challenged for the nomination in 1976) and ultimately because of Richard Nixon. They saw the United States as a declining power and sought to manage that decline. Reagan intended to preside over the reassertion of U.S. power and global leadership.

The Obama presidency is partially a reaction to Bush's response to 9/11. Obama argued that the war in Iraq was not essential and that it diverted American forces from more important theaters, particularly Afghanistan. Like Reagan, Obama feared the fate of the American alliance system, though for very different reasons.

Whereas Reagan feared that unwarranted American caution was undermining the confidence of the alliance, Obama's view has been that excessive and misplaced American aggressiveness was undermining its alliance, and weakening the war effort as a result.

Both Reagan and Obama set about changing the self-perception of the United States, and with it the perception of the United States in the world. Neither was uncontroversial in doing this. Indeed, critics vilified both for what they did, frequently in extraordinarily vituperative ways.

Surging Then Sagging Popularity

The controversy of each president has been rooted in a shared fact: Neither won the presidency overwhelmingly. Reagan took 50.7 percent of the vote, but Carter lost by a large margin because of third party candidates. Obama won with 52.9 percent. Put another way, 47.1 percent of the public voted against Obama and 49.3 percent voted against Reagan.

Both surged in popularity after the election and both bled off popularity as the rhetoric wore thin, economic problems continued and actions in foreign affairs didn't match promises. Reagan fought a brutal battle for tax cuts to stimulate the economy and was attacked by Democrats for greatly increasing the deficit. Obama fought a brutal battle for more spending and was attacked by the Republicans for greatly increasing the deficit.

As a result, Reagan suffered a sharp setback in the 1982 midterm elections as Republicans lost seats in the House of Representatives. Reality overwhelmed rhetoric, and Reagan's rhetorical skills even began to be used against him. But over time, as the economy recovered, Reagan began to gain ground in foreign policy. There were many failures to be sure, but Reagan succeeded by aligning his policies with geopolitical reality.

The United States was enormously powerful, regardless of psychic wounds and poorly deployed resources. The Soviet Union was much weaker than it appeared to those who feared to challenge it. Reagan did not try to change this reality; instead, he crafted policies that flowed from this reality. For all his mistakes, this made him both a two-term president and one more fondly regarded today than he was in his time.

Repudiation vs. Continuity

This is where the difference between Reagan and Obama begins to emerge, and the two men as historical figures begin to diverge.

Reagan repudiated his predecessor's foreign policy and understood that by flexing American power, the allies would regain confidence and fall back into line. By contrast, Obama has taken a different turn and is traveling a much more difficult road. He has retained a high degree of continuity with his predecessor's policies while seeking to resurrect American power first through popularity in order to get allies to cooperate. This is a complicated proposition at best.

With Iraq, Obama continues the Bush policy of phased withdrawal subject to modification. In Afghanistan, the president has carried out his campaign pledge to increase forces, continuing the war that began in 2001, again with a timetable and again subject to change.

With Iran, Obama continues the Bush policy of using sanctions while not taking any other options, like war, off the table. With Russia, Obama has maintained the position the Bush administration took toward NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia, as well as resisting Russian attempts to dominate the former Soviet Union. With China, Obama's position is essentially the Bush position of encouraging closer ties, not emphasizing human rights and focusing on tactical economic issues.

This continuity is combined with a so-far successful attempt to create an altogether different sensibility about the United States overseas. Obama has portrayed the Bush administration as being heedless of international opinion, whereas he intends to align the United States with international opinion. This has resonated substantially overseas, with foreign publics and governments being far more enthusiastic about Obama than they were about Bush.

As a result, the president has been particularly proud of the number of nations that are part of the Afghan war coalition, which he puts at 43. The Iraq war saw only 33 countries send troops, substantially less than Afghanistan but still not indicative of isolation. But in both cases this use of popularity as power is illusory. In many cases the numbers of troops sent are merely token gestures of goodwill.

Nevertheless, there is no question that Obama has managed to generate far more excitement and enthusiasm about his presidency overseas than Bush did. This is the marked achievement so far and it is not a trivial one. His goal is to create an international coalition based less on policy than on a perception of the United States as more embedded in the international community.

The question is: Will this gambit succeed? And if the answer is yes, the next question is: What does he plan to do next? Reagan intended to change the U.S. perception of itself to free him to conduct a more aggressive and risk-taking foreign policy. His view of the world was that the American perception of itself was irrational and limiting and that by lifting the limitations, American power would surge.

Obama's strategy thus far is to change the perception of the United States in foreign countries while at the same time conducting a foreign policy imposed on him by geopolitical reality, much as it imposed itself on Bush. Obama's problem is that the perception he has deliberately generated and the actions that he has taken are at odds. What will the allies offer him, for instance, if he has simply resurrected American popularity but not changed U.S. policy?

Indeed, significant policy changes so far have not succeeded. Openings to Iran and Cuba have not been reciprocated. The opening to the Islamic world has not revolutionized U.S. relations in the region. The Russians are deeply suspicious of Obama, as is Eastern Europe. The Chinese find it hard to see a difference. The major impact has been in Europe, in particular Europe west of Poland. But even here there is a difference between popular enthusiasm and the unease of governments, particularly in Germany.

The Obama Paradox

And so it is in Europe that Obama's strategy will face its defining moment.

In Europe, two goals are at odds. For the Europeans, a definitive, new era is one in which the United States will stop making demands on Europe to support foreign adventures and, ideally, stop engaging in foreign adventures except with European approval.

Obama expects that the Europeans, when approached, will be far more willing to join the United States in foreign adventures because their perception of the United States is more positive.

This is the deep paradox of Obama's foreign policy, which he expressed in Oslo as he accepted the peace prize and went on to make the case for just war and for sanctions against regimes like Iran. In the coming months, three questions will manifest themselves. The first is: Will the Europeans shift from greater control over U.S. actions and less risk to less control and more risk? The second is: What will the president give them in exchange? How much control will pass to them in a consultative foreign policy? The third: How much active support for the Untied States are the Europeans able and willing to bring to bear?

After all, the reality is that the American president who just accepted the Nobel Peace Prize is engaged in multiple wars and a confrontation with Iran. Europe's good wishes have some value, but not the same as material engagement. Indeed, it is not clear why foreign states would embrace Bush's foreign policy conducted by Obama, simply in exchange for consultation. The Europeans will want more.

Aligning Foreign Policy and Geopolitics

Reagan's foreign policy was elegant and aligned with geopolitics. It sought to create a domestic surge in self-confidence in order to support larger defense budgets and a more aggressive policy toward the Soviet Union. Reagan's read of the situation was that the United States was stronger than had been thought and the Soviets were weaker. He had many problems along the way: economic setbacks, scandal, etc., and his popularity shifted. But his thrust was clear.

What is inelegant, though, in Obama's foreign policy is the relation between continuing many of Bush's old policies while improving America's image overseas. Continuity is understandable: Geopolitics deals the cards and the choices are few. The utility of the popularity is important; it can only help. What is unclear as he enters his second year is the relationship between the two.

Most presidents do not fully define their strategy in the first year. But those who do not in the second year tend to run into serious political trouble. Obama has time, but not much. He must show the hand he is playing, or invent one, fast.

(c) Stratfor Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved


By Rep Ike Skelton, Chairman, US House Armed Services Committee

President-elect Obama's decision to retain Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense is superb. Secretary Gates is trustworthy, has a keen sense of duty, and has the qualities of an Eagle Scout, which he is so proud of being. I have great confidence that Secretary Gates will continue to lead our military with distinction and help ensure our national security through these challenging times.

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By Robin Ashby, Publishing Editor, Great North News Services

Congressman Ike Skelton (D-MO) has been chosen by the House Democratic Caucus to serve a second term as Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee during the 111th Congress, which convenes in January 2009.

I met Rep Skelton during UK Defence Forum visits with UK Members of Parliament when he was Ranking Minority Member, in 2006, and as Chairman in 2007. He is a gentleman of the old school, but was extremely supportive of the UK's case on ITAR and technology exchange between the closest of allies. He arranged for us not just to meet him, but four of his subcommittee chairmen, as well as the acting Ranking Minority Member. We felt a special affinity as his ancestors appear to have come from Skelton, a small coastal village in the north east of England close to my former home. On behalf of the UK Defence Forum I congratulate him on his re-election and look forward to hearing more about the deliberations of his committee in the cause of defence, security and peace for the whole world.

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By George Friedman

Barack Obama is the Democratic candidate for president. His advisers in foreign policy are generally Democrats. Together they carry with them an institutional memory of the Democratic Party's approach to foreign policy, and are an expression of the complexity and divisions of that approach. Like the their Republican counterparts, in many ways they are going to be severely constrained as to what they can do both by the nature of the global landscape and American resources. But to some extent, they will also be constrained and defined by the tradition they come from. Understanding that tradition and Obama's place is useful in understanding what an Obama presidency would look like in foreign affairs.

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My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and co-operation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms.

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As set out on the White House website

"Our country's greatest military asset is the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States. When we do send our men and women into harm's way, we must also clearly define the mission, prescribe concrete political and military objectives, seek out the advice of our military commanders, evaluate the intelligence, plan accordingly, and ensure that our troops have the resources, support, and equipment they need to protect themselves and fulfill their mission."

-- Barack Obama, Chicago Foreign Affairs CouncilApril 23, 2007

Read more...  

President Obama has finally and most reluctantly agreed to arm the Syrian rebels. But he is still clinging to the Geneva 2 conference as the most preferred option. David Ignatius writing in the Washington Post Thursday June 20th said that President Obama doesn't have a strategy and is still playing for a negotiated diplomatic transition.

Nehad Ismail argues in this article that it is not the use of Sarin gas or chemical weapons that has led to the sudden change of strategy. It is the direct intervention by Iran and Hezbollah in the conflict on the Bashar al Assad's side and the routing of the rebels in Qusair which alarmed the US administration, and was the catalyst for the change. If this success is repeated elsewhere that would be the end of the revolution and a major victory for the Moscow, Tehran and Damascus alliance.

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By Nikos Lampas

A rather wide discussion takes place these days, due to the fact of the ongoing Nuclear Summit in D.C, regarding the possibility of a nuclear attack originating from non-state actors. The international community in general seems to come in terms with the possibility of terrorist organizations mounting an attack of non-conventional nature. The recent statement of President Obama that "the single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term and long-term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon," clearly enhances the insecurity that states experience regarding the dimensions of the terrorist threat. Many analysts, including highly esteemed scholars such as Sam Nunn, precipitate the insecurity that states feel by adding, "President Obama is focusing high-level attention on the threat that already exists out there, and that's tremendously important." A fundamental belief that permeates the ongoing summit is that "its key objective is to get basic consensus that nuclear terrorism is a global threat -- and needs to be a core mission of the IAEA".

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By Baker Spring

The White House plans to submit the April 8, 2010, the Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms Treaty (New START) between the Russian Federation and the United States of America to the Senate for ratification today. The Senate should focus less on the text of the Treaty, its Protocol and Annexes because these documents were made available to the Senate and the public earlier. Instead, the Senate should focus more on the two documents that will accompany today's submission and that have so far not been made public. The first is the section-by-section analysis of the Treaty. The second is the so-called Section 1251 report.

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By George Friedman

U.S. President Barack Obama announced the broad structure of his Afghanistan strategy in a speech at West Point on Tuesday evening. The strategy had three core elements. First, he intends to maintain pressure on al Qaeda on the Afghan-Pakistani border and in other regions of the world. Second, he intends to blunt the Taliban offensive by sending an additional 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan, along with an unspecified number of NATO troops he hopes will join them. Third, he will use the space created by the counteroffensive against the Taliban and the resulting security in some regions of Afghanistan to train and build Afghan military forces and civilian structures to assume responsibility after the United States withdraws. Obama added that the U.S. withdrawal will begin in July 2011, but provided neither information on the magnitude of the withdrawal nor the date when the withdrawal would conclude. He made it clear that these will depend on the situation on the ground, adding that the U.S. commitment is finite.

In understanding this strategy, we must begin with an obvious but unstated point: The extra forces that will be deployed to Afghanistan are not expected to defeat the Taliban. Instead, their mission is to reverse the momentum of previous years and to create the circumstances under which an Afghan force can take over the mission. The U.S. presence is therefore a stopgap measure, not the ultimate solution.

The ultimate solution is training an Afghan force to engage the Taliban over the long haul, undermining support for the Taliban, and dealing with al Qaeda forces along the Pakistani border and in the rest of Afghanistan. If the United States withdraws all of its forces as Obama intends, the Afghan military would have to assume all of these missions. Therefore, we must consider the condition of the Afghan military to evaluate the strategy's viability.

Afghanistan vs. Vietnam

Obama went to great pains to distinguish Afghanistan from Vietnam, and there are indeed many differences. The core strategy adopted by Richard Nixon (not Lyndon Johnson) in Vietnam, called "Vietnamization," saw U.S. forces working to blunt and disrupt the main North Vietnamese forces while the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) would be trained, motivated and deployed to replace U.S. forces to be systematically withdrawn from Vietnam. The equivalent of the Afghan surge was the U.S. attack on North Vietnamese Army (NVA) bases in Cambodia and offensives in northern South Vietnam designed to disrupt NVA command and control and logistics and forestall a major offensive by the NVA. Troops were in fact removed in parallel with the Cambodian offensives.

Nixon faced two points Obama now faces. First, the United States could not provide security for South Vietnam indefinitely. Second, the South Vietnamese would have to provide security for themselves. The role of the United States was to create the conditions under which the ARVN would become an effective fighting force; the impending U.S. withdrawal was intended to increase the pressure on the Vietnamese government to reform and on the ARVN to fight.

Many have argued that the core weakness of the strategy was that the ARVN was not motivated to fight. This was certainly true in some cases, but the idea that the South Vietnamese were generally sympathetic to the Communists is untrue. Some were, but many weren't, as shown by the minimal refugee movement into NVA-held territory or into North Vietnam itself contrasted with the substantial refugee movement into U.S./ARVN-held territory and away from NVA forces. The patterns of refugee movement are, we think, highly indicative of true sentiment.

Certainly, there were mixed sentiments, but the failure of the ARVN was not primarily due to hostility or even lack of motivation. Instead, it was due to a problem that must be addressed and overcome if the Afghanistation war is to succeed. That problem is understanding the role that Communist sympathizers and agents played in the formation of the ARVN.

By the time the ARVN expanded and for that matter from its very foundation the North Vietnamese intelligence services had created a systematic program for inserting operatives and recruiting sympathizers at every level of the ARVN, from senior staff and command positions down to the squad level. The exploitation of these assets was not random nor merely intended to undermine moral. Instead, it provided the NVA with strategic, operational and tactical intelligence on ARVN operations, and when ARVN and U.S. forces operated together, on U.S. efforts as well.

In any insurgency, the key for insurgent victory is avoiding battles on the enemy's terms and initiating combat only on the insurgents' terms. The NVA was a light infantry force. The ARVN and the U.S. Army on which it was modeled was a much heavier, combined-arms force. In any encounter between the NVA and its enemies the NVA would lose unless the encounter was at the time and place of the NVA's choosing. ARVN and U.S. forces had a tremendous advantage in firepower and sheer weight. But they had a significant weakness: The weight they bought to bear meant they were less agile. The NVA had a tremendous weakness. Caught by surprise, it would be defeated. And it had a great advantage: Its intelligence network inside the ARVN generally kept it from being surprised. It also revealed weakness in its enemies' deployment, allowing it to initiate successful offensives.

All war is about intelligence, but nowhere is this truer than in counterinsurgency and guerrilla war, where invisibility to the enemy and maintaining the initiative in all engagements is key. Only clear intelligence on the enemy's capability gives this initiative to an insurgent, and only denying intelligence to the enemy or knowing what the enemy knows and intends preserves the insurgent force.

The construction of an Afghan military is an obvious opportunity for Taliban operatives and sympathizers to be inserted into the force. As in Vietnam, such operatives and sympathizers are not readily distinguishable from loyal soldiers; ideology is not something easy to discern. With these operatives in place, the Taliban will know of and avoid Afghan army forces and will identify Afghan army weaknesses. Knowing that the Americans are withdrawing as the NVA did in Vietnam means the rational strategy of the Taliban is to reduce operational tempo, allow the withdrawal to proceed, and then take advantage of superior intelligence and the ability to disrupt the Afghan forces internally to launch the Taliban offensives.

The Western solution is not to prevent Taliban sympathizers from penetrating the Afghan army. Rather, the solution is penetrating the Taliban. In Vietnam, the United States used signals intelligence extensively. The NVA came to understand this and minimized radio communications, accepting inefficient central command and control in return for operational security. The solution to this problem lay in placing South Vietnamese into the NVA. There were many cases in which this worked, but on balance, the NVA had a huge advantage in the length of time it had spent penetrating the ARVN versus U.S. and ARVN counteractions. The intelligence war on the whole went to the North Vietnamese. The United States won almost all engagements, but the NVA made certain that it avoided most engagements until it was ready.

In the case of Afghanistan, the United States has far more sophisticated intelligence-gathering tools than it did in Vietnam. Nevertheless, the basic principle remains: An intelligence tool can be understood, taken into account and evaded. By contrast, deep penetration on multiple levels by human intelligence cannot be avoided.

Pakistan's Role

Obama mentioned Pakistan's critical role. Clearly, he understands the lessons of Vietnam regarding sanctuary, and so he made it clear that he expects Pakistan to engage and destroy Taliban forces on its territory and to deny Afghan Taliban supplies, replacements and refuge. He cited the Swat and South Waziristan offensives as examples of the Pakistanis' growing effectiveness. While this is a significant piece of his strategy, the Pakistanis must play another role with regard to intelligence.

The heart of Obama's strategy lies not in the surge, but rather in turning the war over to the Afghans. As in Vietnam, any simplistic model of loyalties doesn't work. There are Afghans sufficiently motivated to form the core of an effective army. As in Vietnam, the problem is that this army will contain large numbers of Taliban sympathizers; there is no way to prevent this. The Taliban is not stupid: It has and will continue to move its people into as many key positions as possible.

The challenge lies in leveling the playing field by inserting operatives into the Taliban. Since the Afghan intelligence services are inherently insecure, they can't carry out such missions. American personnel bring technical intelligence to bear, but that does not compensate for human intelligence. The only entity that could conceivably penetrate the Taliban and remain secure is the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This would give the Americans and Afghans knowledge of Taliban plans and deployments. This would diminish the ability of the Taliban to evade attacks, and although penetrated as well, the Afghan army would enjoy a chance ARVN never had.

But only the ISI could do this, and thinking of the ISI as secure is hard to do from a historical point of view. The ISI worked closely with the Taliban during the Afghan civil war that brought it to power and afterwards, and the ISI had many Taliban sympathizers. The ISI underwent significant purging and restructuring to eliminate these elements over recent years, but no one knows how successful these efforts were.

The ISI remains the center of gravity of the entire problem. If the war is about creating an Afghan army, and if we accept that the Taliban will penetrate this army heavily no matter what, then the only counter is to penetrate the Taliban equally. Without that, Obama's entire strategy fails as Nixon's did.

In his talk, Obama quite properly avoided discussing the intelligence aspect of the war. He clearly cannot ignore the problem we have laid out, but neither can he simply count on the ISI. He does not need the entire ISI for this mission, however. He needs a carved out portion compartmentalized and invisible to the greatest possible extent to recruit and insert operatives into the Taliban and to create and manage communication networks so as to render the Taliban transparent. Given Taliban successes of late, it isn't clear whether he has this intelligence capability. Either way, we would have to assume that some Pakistani solution to the Taliban intelligence issue has been discussed (and such a solution must be Pakistani for ethnic and linguistic reasons).

Every war has its center of gravity, and Obama has made clear that the center of gravity of this war will be the Afghan military's ability to replace the Americans in a very few years. If that is the center of gravity, and if maintaining security against Taliban penetration is impossible, then the single most important enabler to Obama's strategy would seem to be the ability to make the Taliban transparent.

Therefore, Pakistan is important not only as the Cambodia of this war, the place where insurgents go to regroup and resupply, but also as a key element of the solution to the intelligence war. It is all about Pakistan. And that makes Obama's plan difficult to execute. It is far easier to write these words than to execute a plan based on them. But to the extent Obama is serious about the Afghan army taking over, he and his team have had to think about how to do this.

(c) Stratfor Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved


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