Foreign Policy and National Security ‘On Hold’

Presidential Policy: Does It Make the Grade?, James Carafano, PhD

Foreign policy and national security went “on hold” last week as the administration saw few “front burner” issues make much progress.

In Afghanistan, the president continues to postpone making a decision on the way forward. According to the Washington Post, Obama has now asked senior officials for a province-by-province analysis of Afghanistan “to help determine which regions are being managed effectively by local leaders and which require international help.” He supposedly “wants the clearest possible understanding of what the challenges are to our forces and what is required to meet the challenge.” Seems like this is information he should have asked for months ago.

Complicating matters, now it looks like the presidential run-off in Afghanistan will not happen. According to Reuters, “U.S. officials said on Sunday that Afghan presidential challenger Abdullah Abdullah's decision to quit an election run-off would not complicate President Barack Obama's deliberations on the war strategy.” What U.S. officials did not say is that the election debacle might have been avoided altogether if the President had moved to rush troops to turn the tide months ago.

Not only is the President dithering, reports are he is leaning toward a strategy called “McChrystal-Lite,” giving the senior commander in Afghanistan less than half the troops he requested.

The truth is, the Pentagon has been scrutinizing the failures of our AfPak strategy for over two years and the new administration has benefited from all the work done before it took the White House. The argument that we need more study, or that half measures will do, is wearing pretty thin. We need a decision and pretty compelling rationale to support it…other than it is half way between Biden and McChrystal.

Not much better news from Pakistan where Secretary Clinton found rough going on recent visit. According to the LA Times, “Every time Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to win over Pakistanis during her three-day charm offensive last week, they fired back a polite but firm message: We don't really trust your country.” That news is troubling. The U.S. cannot win the war against the Taliban/al Qaeda without cooperation from Pakistan.

Heritage expert Lisa Curtis concludes, “It will take time and patience to drain the deep reservoirs of Pakistani anger and resentment toward the U.S. and to change a tendency among Pakistanis to blame U.S. policies for the terrorist backlash in the country. Specifically: [t]he Obama Administration will need to follow up Clinton's promises of broad strategic engagement and commitment to Pakistani prosperity with concrete and consistent aid programs that touch the lives of average Pakistanis and minimize losses to corruption; and [e]ven more important to establishing a successful U.S.-Pakistan partnership will be whether America commits to stabilizing Afghanistan.”

The administration got no better news from Iran, where it seems like the Tehran has not interest in really reaching a settlement on its nuclear program. The latest blow is that Iranian lawmakers gave thumbs down to any nuclear deal. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the West is “not going to wait forever” for Iran to accept a UN-backed nuclear deal, dismissed the threat and compared the West to a “mosquito.”

Heritage expert Jim Phillips adds that even if the U.S. could get a deal it would likely not prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. “Iran,” he points out, “probably still has nuclear chess pieces hidden under the table that it will reveal triumphantly at the end of the game. At that point, with a nuclear weapon in hand, Tehran will declare checkmate – or in Farsi: “shah mat” (“the king is ambushed” or “helpless”).

Even in Latin America, where U.S. foreign policy appeared to make some progress, results were far less than they appeared. An October 29th agreement mediated by President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica allows ousted Honduran President Zelaya to return to the country and sets up a special election to elect a new president. The return of Zelaya, however, is not a done deal. According to Heritage scholar Ray Walser, “It will require a ruling from the Honduran Supreme Court which ordered Zelaya's removal from office for violations of the Honduran constitution. The National Congress will then vote on the recommendations offered by the Supreme Court[.]” In other word, it ain’t over yet.

Walser adds, “[a]nxious for the glimmer of a foreign policy victory, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the accord as ‘a big step forward for the Inter-American system and its commitment to democracy.’ Such a statement grossly underestimates the serious divisions that separate the Chavista brand of populist, participatory democracy from genuine, pluralistic democracy.”

Furthermore, rather than make things better, U.S. pressure mostly made things worse. “To date,” Walser concludes, “the Obama team has done an excellent job of hamstringing the Honduran economy by cutting off economic assistance, throttling tourism with travel warnings, yanking visas away from Hondurans, and creating a climate of massive uncertainty that spooked U.S. investors and businesses. Withholding military-to-military cooperation and reducing contact between the embassy and interim government allowed drug traffickers to make fresh inroads in Honduras.” If there is a good example in Honduras, it will be despite, not because of administration leadership.

While the White House might claim it had a good week because nothing went terribly wrong, the facts suggest Washington is just “treading water.” The grade for the week is another “incomplete.” Contributing Editor James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is a leading expert in defense affaires, intelligence, military operations and strategy, and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation

Posted November 03, 2009, Family security matters