Category Archives: U.S. Politics

House, Senate will both hold hearings on North Korea policy this week* (updated)

If you ask senior Obama Administration officials about the policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea today, they will bristle and recast it as something else, but this wasn’t the case in 2010, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained her policy in a visit to Seoul:

“What we’re focused on is changing North Korean behavior,” one senior U.S. official said. “We are not focused on getting back to the table.” “We recognize that diplomacy, some form of diplomacy with North Korea, is inevitable at some point,” another official said. “We’re really not there.” [Glenn Kessler, Washington Post]

That visit followed North Korea’s second nuclear test by a year, and North Korea’s attack on the ROKS Cheonan by a month. It clearly wasn’t working then, and it certainly isn’t working now. Expect “strategic patience” to come under attack in both houses of Congress this week.

Wednesday’s event, at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Asia Subcommittee,** is entitled, “Assessing the North Korea Threat and U.S. Policy: Strategic Patience or Effective Deterrence.” Senator Cory Gardner, the Subcommittee Chair, will preside. If this speech and this resolution are any indication, the junior senator from Colorado will have some difficult questions for the Panel One witnesses, including Ambassador Sung Kim and Ambassador Robert King.

[Update: the hearing notice now says that the hearing has been postponed. I’ll update this post when the hearing is rescheduled.]

Panel Two witnesses will include Ambassador Mark Minton, President of the Korea Society, and Jay Lefkowitz, King’s predecessor as former Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights. I confess that King’s message discipline has made me miss Lefkowitz, who was willing to stray from the party line to prevent his portfolio from being steamrolled by the State Department bureaucracy.

The hearing follows the introduction of a sanctions bill by Senator Bob Menendez (D, NJ) and Senator Lindsay Graham (R, SC), even before we’ve heard from the Chairman and Ranking Member of the full committee, Senators Bob Corker (R, TN) and Ben Cardin (D, MD). For the Senate, it will be the first major hearing on North Korea policy since March 2013, shortly after North Korea’s third nuclear test.

On Tuesday afternoon,* two subcommittees of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the subcommittees dealing with Asia policy and nonproliferation, will hold their own hearing, “The Iran-North Korea Strategic Alliance,” a topic I addressed to a limited extent in “Arsenal of Terror.” The hearing announcement does not include any witnesses from the administration, but will include (among others) investigative journalist Claudia Rosett and Larry Niksch, formerly with the Congressional Research Service.

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In retrospect, it was North Korea’s third nuclear test in February 2013 that collapsed congressional support for “strategic patience.” Congress never showed much enthusiasm for it, but until 2013, its skepticism was mostly expressed by Republicans. Even the comically short-lived Leap Day Agreement failed to raise much organized opposition in 2012. Still, it was obvious to anyone who paid attention that the administration was paralyzed and out of ideas. Even prominent former administration officials admitted as much.

Congress’s 2013 revolt, led by the new Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce, was bipartisan, organized, and expressed in the form of comprehensive sanctions legislation.*** Royce was joined by Ranking Member Elliot Engel, many other prominent Democrats, 147 co-sponsors in all, and eventually, the full House.

This year, the Senate has joined the House in questioning the State Department’s lack of a credible response to North Korea’s continued proliferation, to the Commission of Inquiry report, and to the Sony cyberattack and threats — in short, its apparent lack of any coherent North Korea policy whatsoever. Contrary to the concern I’d expressed last week, the controversy over Iran will not monopolize Congress’s energy for the foreseeable future after all.

This week’s hearings will likely cement congressional frustration with the administration’s policy (or lack of one). Only time will tell if that frustration, in turn, will be enough to frustrate any grasp at Agreed Framework 3.0, but it certainly won’t make it any easier.

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* If you’re reading this on Wednesday, please don’t go to the Rayburn Building this afternoon to see this hearing. It was actually held on Tuesday — sorry! I’ll link the video when it’s published on line.

**  I clarified the original post to indicate that this is a subcommittee hearing, not a full committee hearing.

*** Full disclosure.


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Sen. Cory Gardner just gave as good a speech about North Korea policy as I’ve ever seen

Senator Cory Gardner* of Colorado is the new Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy. When I first heard that a freshman Senator had been picked to lead such an important subcommittee, it concerned me. Delving into Gardner’s background, however, it became clear that he’s highly intelligent — he graduated from college summa cum laude, and (at least according to his Wikipedia page) speaks fluent German. He has graduated from law school (never a bad thing for a lawmaker) and served as Legislative Director for Sen. Wayne Allard (ditto). He’s also a relative moderate in a party whose image has been dominated by the likes of Rand Paul and Ted Cruz recently. So why not? An ounce of judgment is worth a pound of seniority. But then, a friend directed me to this:

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 8.21.45 AM

Aside from the fact that it was a torpedo, not a missile, that sank the Cheonan, that was just about pitch-perfect. It’s about as good a speech as I’ve seen any politician deliver about North Korea, and quite possibly the best articulation I’ve seen of what a better North Korea policy would be. The confidence of the Senate leaders in Senator Gardner certainly exceeds his seniority. Now I see why. I expect good things from him.

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* A previous version of this post misspelled Sen. Gardner’s first name. My apologies for the error.

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In 2006, Ashton Carter called for blowing up a N. Korean missile on the launch pad

At the time, I wasn’t especially enthusiastic about the idea, and I’m still not enthusiastic about it today, but had I known then that George W. Bush and Barack Obama would let things get to where they’ve gotten today, I might have agreed with the idea of an aerial intercept.

One thing we know about Ashton Carter is that he talks a good game.

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Must read: RFK Center calls for a “rights up front” policy toward N. Korea

The report, by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, along with the Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea,* calls on the U.S. to defer its pursuit of Agreed Framework III, and instead confront the very reason why Pyongyang shouldn’t have nuclear weapons, and why diplomacy with it will continue to fail:

Only when North Korea begins to develop a record of improvement on human rights can it engage with the U.S. on other issues, including security, the economy, a peace treaty, or eventual normalization of diplomatic relations. Indeed, improving North Korea’s human rights record should be the litmus test of North Korea’s credibility to engage on other issues. After all, if a government has no regard for the lives of its own people, what regard does it have for the lives of others? What deters it from provoking a war, or proliferating missile technology and weapons of mass destruction to terrorists? [Robert F. Kennedy Center]

In doing so, the report also challenges an exhausted and paralyzed foreign policy establishment that, at least with respect to North Korea, has become a hospice for dying dogma and hasn’t had an original idea since 1989:

For a quarter of a century, U.S. diplomatic strategy has sought to separate and narrow its disagreements with North Korea, to solve them sequentially. Yet the path to solving all of these disagreements is barred by the same obstacle – North Korea’s isolation and secrecy. The agreed framework of 1994 and 2007 agreement both broke down over verification. Similarly, without transparency, the World Food Program cannot monitor the access to food aid, the International Atomic Energy Agency cannot monitor disarmament, and North Korea will deny that its prison camps even exist – including one that is directly adjacent to its nuclear test site. Without transparency, there can be no verification. Transparency in humanitarian matters such as food aid and the treatment of prisoners cannot be sidelined if there is to be a verifiable denuclearization of North Korea.

The report recites Pyongyang’s lengthy history of ignoring U.N. requests to cooperate with human rights inquiries—a history that illustrates the disingenuousness of its recent, often inartful, efforts to “engage” the EU and other U.N. member states.

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Claudia Rosett hopes the Obama Administration won’t screw up Iran …

policy with a bad deal the same way the Clinton and Bush Administrations screwed up North Korea policy with their own bad deals. Rosett isn’t the only one making the comparison:

“Like North Korea in the 1990s, Iran will use a weak deal as cover to get nuclear weapons,” said Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, a prominent skeptic of the negotiations. [CNN]

The historical record yields little cause for optimism, and the common thread that runs through much of that record is Wendy Sherman. In an exquisite understatement, CNN says that President Obama wants a nuclear deal with Iran to burnish his legacy because he “lacks a defining foreign policy triumph.”

No doubt, George W. Bush was thinking the same thing in February 2007, and I doubt that Bush’s presidential library devotes much space to Agreed Framework II. That may help explain why most observers agree that Obama isn’t about to stick his neck out for Agreed Framework III, and why the President himself shows no interest in doing so. If his policy shifts, it will shift in the opposite direction, either at Congress’s initiative or (ironically) the U.N.’s.

If the shape of the Iran debate is any indication of where the North Korea debate is headed, the Republican takeover in the Senate suggests that Congress will be skeptical about agreements and more active on sanctions legislation. Whether you believe that Congress will push North Korea policy depends on whether you believe Yonhap’s American experts, who say nothing will change, or the Joongang Ilbo‘s sources in the Korean foreign policy establishment, who worry that “[s]anctions on the North could be tightened.” As if that’s a bad thing.

The actual answer will depend on events. If Kim Jong Un does something stupid enough, or if U.N. action builds a big enough head of steam, Congress will put a bill on the President’s desk. The President probably won’t veto it, but the real question will be whether he enforces it.

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How the mid-terms will affect foreign policy

I haven’t had time to finish this piece by Michael Barone at The American Interest, but what I’ve read so far is consistent with what I observed when I was on The Hill. I expect a big fight about Iran sanctions that will pit the President against a broad, bipartisan majority in Congress.

At some point, I expect Kerry to be sacrificed for the President’s continued weakness on foreign policy (update: I mean as measured by the polls), just as Rumsfeld was sacrificed after the 2006 election.

In the final years of their presidencies, presidents tend to move toward their opponents on foreign policy, while grasping for some achievement to burnish their legacies.

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Whatever you want to say about the election, say it here

I’m sad that my friend, Suzanne Scholte lost, but glad that she managed a credible performance despite having no history of running for, or holding, elective office, and despite lacking any money for TV or radio ads, or to raise a large and experienced campaign staff. She also did it despite redistricting that followed Connolly’s very close win in 2010, something I only heard about a few weeks ago, when a federal court held that the plan was unconstitutional. The redistricting made Va-11 much more democratic; one wonders whether the next plan might be friendlier if Suzanne decides to run again, and if the Republicans decide to back her financially. Obviously, she didn’t run on the issue that caused me to support her, but I hope that when her disappointment fades, she’ll regroup and consider another try in 2016.

I’m not at all unhappy at the idea of being represented by Gerry Connolly, and I wish him well. Connolly is also good on the issue caused me to support my long-time friend, Suzanne. In a more perfect world, I wouldn’t have to choose between them.

I’m very happy that former House Foreign Affairs Committee staffer Young Kim won her election to the California State Assembly, partially because I hope will be her stepping stone to Congress one day. I saw her two weeks ago in L.A., when I addressed a Korean-American organization, as did several political candidates of both parties. Kim is a natural politician, one of those rare people who can enter a room filled with hundreds of people and make every one of them feel important, including the short, dumpy, unimportant ones. Kim carries herself with a natural elegance more often seen in movie stars, something you almost have to bask in to fully appreciate. But then, it is southern California.

It will be interesting to see how this result affects the prospects of H.R. 1771, the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, in the Senate. Despite its bipartisan support in the House, I don’t think there’s much question that its short-term prospects improve under a Republican Congress and a Democratic President. Despite the administration’s likely concerns that it forces the State Department’s hand too much, the Administration may be tempted to ask Senate Democrats to pass a weaker version in this Congress, in the hope of drawing off some of the impetus for the next Congress to pass something more robust.

As far as the broader election result is concerned, I’m sure you can find better places to talk about that, but for those of you who are disappointed this morning, in a spirit of offering consolation, I’ll link to my post following the 2006 elections. That election was a backlash against a botched war (and other botched things); this one is a backlash against a botched peace (and other botched things). Aside from that difference, much of what I said about that result is true of this one, too. I don’t think either election was really about ideology so much as buyer’s remorse, and the punishment of incompetence.

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Update: One of the most interesting election stories to me was a massive swing by Asian voters toward Republicans. Asian voters still only made up 3% of the electorate, but their votes were split evenly between the two parties this time. Historically, they’ve favored Democrats. I wish I could see a better statistical breakdown by ethnicity. For example, we know that Japanese-Americans are usually loyal Democrats and Vietnamese-Americans are most likely to vote Republican, but how did Korean-Americans vote?

For all voters, the most important issues were the economy (48%), health care (25%), illegal immigration (14%), and foreign policy (13%). It wasn’t a foreign policy election, but foreign policy is back in the top four.

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The WaPo has noticed how Korean-Americans’ political power

… in northern Virginia has grown dramatically in recent years, and accuses politicians of “pandering” to them. To that, I’d ask you to name any well-organized constituency that can’t make a politician pander now and then, and I’ll show you a constituency that isn’t organized at all. We have the worst political system there is, except for all of the others, and in our political system, constituencies matter very much.

The WaPo dwells on what it doesn’t like about the uses of this new power, but as one who has personally encouraged Korean-Americans to embrace and harness that power, I think the editors also overlook the extent to which Korean-Americans are emerging as a powerful liberating force on their ancestral homeland (second item) and on our government’s policy toward North Korea. Inevitably, as the generations change, the sensibilities and priorities of Korean-Americans will increasingly mesh with those of other Americans, but that doesn’t have to mean forgetting Korea’s interests, history, and perspective.

No, I suppose I’m no more excited about “East Sea” than I would be about asking Koreans to call the Gulf of Mexico the South Gulf, because place names should have universal descriptive value, but I have a very different view of recognizing the comfort women, only some of whom were Korean. If the fear of making German tourists uncomfortable didn’t prevent us from building a Holocaust Museum on the National Mall, I don’t see why Japanese-Americans (except deniers) should feel any discomfort about a comfort women memorial government behind the Fairfax County Government Center. The test for any historical recognition should not be whom it might offend, but whether it is true.

I also have to wonder if we’d be seeing any of this controversy today if it weren’t for the stupidity of Shinzo Abe.

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Rand Paul: You people got me all wrong about this non-interventionism stuff.

Paul’s shift may be even less credible than Clinton’s, and just as mercenary. Unfortunately for Paul, isolationism, emotional authenticity, and financial puritanism are his brand image. Without those things, he’s just Mike Huckabee with better hair. It is Paul’s misfortune that we’re re-awakening to the dreary truth that the low characters of our world won’t let us ignore them away.

I’m still waiting for someone — anyone — to advocate sustainable, plausible strategy for defeating ISIS. The only such strategy I can see is to offer the Sunnis diplomatic support for autonomy and military support for a re-awakening that would deprive ISIS of a haven. For the same reason a doctor wouldn’t treat half a tumor, this same offer has to apply to Sunnis in Syria, which might result in a regional alliance of moderate, autonomous Sunni para-states stretching from Aleppo to Mosul, liberated by Arab tribes with American-supplied weapons, and backed by U.S. air power — and not by U.S. infantry.

Only the Arabs can exterminate ISIS now, but no one has a greater interest in doing so. In due course, a backlash against the brutality of ISIS will build. Our imperative is to be ready to take advantage of that backlash.

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Congress marks 20th anniversary of Agreed Framework I, asks how that’s working out

The House Asia-Pacific Subcommittee commemorated the 20th anniversary of Agreed Framework I by calling Ambassadors Glyn Davies and Bob King over for a hearing this afternoon, and it was a tough day for Team Foggy Bottom.

If you want to see how congressional oversight should work — if you want to see a well-informed, well-prepared legislator completely, verifiably, and irreversibly dismantle 20 years of bad policy — then watch Subcommittee Chairman Steve Chabot’s opening statement. Chabot made great use of John Kerry’s description of North Korea as “quiet,” and his critique of State’s obtuse position on North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism was devastating:

Chabot isn’t a mesmerizing speaker, but he’s an effective one, and in the ten years I’ve been watching these things, I don’t know when I’ve ever seen a more effective opening statement. His questions of Ambassador King made it clear that the Administration has done nothing about the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report, and nothing King said suggested that that’s about to change.

Your comedy gold, however, came from Scott Perry of Pennsylvania questioning Ambassador Davies about what everyone but the State Department calls “strategic patience.” Skip to 1:06, where he begins by asking Glyn Davies about what, exactly, he’s accomplished.

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Davies’s reaction to this was arrogant and snippy. Perry threw him off-balance, and off his diplomatic demeanor.

If you have time, watch the whole hearing, and strain your ears for any inkling that State has anything to show for its efforts, any confidence in its plans — indeed, any plan at all. Davies, in particular, sounds weary and resigned. They’ve all been running out the clock ever since the Groundhog Day Agreement failed.

Sherman (D-Cal.) was (as always) mercurial, and less hawkish than in the past; Bera (D-Cal.), who ordinarily comes across as very bright, didn’t seem confident in his knowledge of the subject, and Connolly (D-Va.) didn’t get anyeonghasseyeo quite right, but his questions were insightful and penetrating. He tried to get Davies to react to the House’s passage of H.R 1771, but Davies wouldn’t bite.

Members of both parties sounded unimpressed with State’s performance, both on nukes and human rights. The idea we’ve fought for years is that North Korea policy has to be a zero-sum competition between those objectives. But what if State can’t get anything done on either? What Congress saw today was a State Department that ran out of ideas 20 years ago, and that had no record to defend.

The hearing began just as Treasury announced its new round of Chong Chon Gang sanctions, something I at least partially foresaw in this morning’s post (and which I’ll say more about tomorrow). So if even I foresaw it, why couldn’t someone have at least let Davies announce them in his opening statement? Given the strong bi-partisan pressure for tougher sanctions, having that news to deliver might have helped Davies’s day go better.

Update: Yonhap’s take, here.

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H.R. 1771 passes House of Representatives on a voice vote

Chairman Royce (R, Cal.) and Congressman Gerry Connolly (D, Va.) both spoke strongly in favor. No member was opposed, and no member asked for a vote. The “ayes” had it just after 3 p.m.

If there’s any aspect of this that’s bittersweet, it’s that a lot of people who worked hard for this outcome could not be there to see it because the vote was scheduled on such short notice.

Here is the version that passed the House today.

Now, on to the Senate.

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Update: Jean Arthur explains congressional procedure to Jimmy Stewart in the classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

I love that clip.

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H.R. 1771 scheduled for a House floor vote on Monday

It’s on the calendar. And while I doubt there will be serious opposition in the House, we’ll need Kim Jong Un’s help to pass the Senate this year. But if not this year, next. Eventually, he’ll do something stupid, and when he does, we’ll be ready.

By itself, passage in the House would be a major symbolic victory. No one will ever be able to say there’s no alternative to standing by and watching a nation be slaughtered, strangled, and starved to death.

You hear a lot about how polarized this Congress is politically, but the Foreign Affairs Committee is a haven from that. The (relative) partisan and ideological balance in this bill’s support reflects that even in the Congress, there’s still a place where the two parties can work together. Royce himself has called our North Korea policy “a bipartisan failure.” H.R. 1771 represents a bipartisan recognition that we need a better strategy.

I can’t overstate my appreciation for so much hard work by Korean-American and other groups that mobilized to pass this bill: the Federation of Korean Associations, the North Korean Freedom Coalition, the Korean Church Coalition (which ran an outstanding event to support this bill two weeks ago), and of course, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

[The Korean Church Coalition, 2014 Leadership Conference, Washington]

Finally, I can’t overstate my appreciation to Chairman Royce for delivering, and to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s talented, overworked, underpaid, and often unrecognized staff members — of both parties, and in the Asia Subcommittee — who did the hard work that made this bill possible.

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Suzanne Scholte takes her case to Northern Virginia’s Korean-Americans

Last Saturday, Suzanne Scholte and I appeared at a panel sponsored by the Korean-American Association of the Washington Metropolitan Area and the Korean Freedom Alliance. Scholte, who is now running to represent Virginia’s 11th District in Congress, addressed the group and made an impassioned case for why Korean-Americans should lead their fellow Americans and the world in opposing North Korea’s crimes against humanity.

WKTV, northern Virginia’s Korean-language TV channel, was also there. Video of Suzanne starts at about 4 minutes in.

I’m a proud supporter of Suzanne’s candidacy. Conservative voters will not need any persuasion from me to support Suzanne, so I’ll address this brief argument to those who see themselves as liberals or moderates, and who are interested enough in human rights in North Korea to read this site. I have nothing against her opponent, Gerry Connolly, whom I’ve met and liked. I see this as a race between good and best, and all I ask is that just one of our 535 legislators care about this issue as much as Suzanne does.

Voters with an interest in women’s issues should respect Suzanne’s work on behalf of North Korean victims of sex trafficking. I don’t doubt that her advocacy has saved hundreds of them over the years she has devoted to this cause.

Suzanne’s campaign is also on Facebook and Twitter. If you feel the same way about this issue as I do, I hope you’ll friend and follow her.

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Suzanne Scholte for Congress (bumped)

My friend, Suzanne Scholte, the leader of the North Korean Freedom Coalition, has won the Republican nomination to run for a seat in the U.S. Congress, representing Virginia’s 11th District, in the suburbs of Washington, DC. I’ve known Suzanne since October 2003, the same month I left active duty with the Army and started the antecedent to this blog at a long-forgotten place called Geocities.

Suzanne Scholte, a well-known U.S. activist on the North Korean human rights problem, has become a Republican candidate for November’s congressional election, according to her campaign website.

She will take on Democrat incumbent Gerry Connolly seeking a fourth term in the House to represent Virginia’s 11th district where there are relatively many Korean-American residents.

“This is time for all of us to come together to preserve what makes America the greatest nation on earth, our Constitution, our rule of law and our freedoms,” Scholte said on Saturday in a speech after defeating her party rivals in a nomination race. “We will bring together people from diverse backgrounds and build a unity of purpose to achieve greater opportunity and hope.” [Yonhap]

Suzanne’s nomination is big news in Korea, as it should be. More here, at The Joongang Ilbo.

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I have only kind words to say about Gerry Connolly, Suzanne’s opponent. I’ve met him and I like him. If he were running against any ordinary candidate, he’d probably be the best candidate on this issue. Connolly has shown commendable behind-the-scenes leadership on this issue this year. I’m glad this isn’t a partisan issue anymore. Maybe it never was.

The 11th District has a large Korean-American vote that has traditionally hewed toward the Democrats, despite its conservative values, mainly because of immigration. A Democratic candidate who doesn’t win the Korean-American vote in this district decisively could be in for a very close race, especially in a year that already looks bleak for swing-district Democrats (in 2010, Connolly was reelected by less than 1,000 votes out of 227,000, or 0.4% of the total, less than the vote totals of the Independent and Libertarian candidates).

The point of this is that, despite descriptions of her as the “underdog,” Suzanne could actually win this race.

All of this leaves us with a welcome relief from our binary love-hate politics. Instead of a contest between good and evil, we’re fortunate enough to have a contest between good and best. Connolly’s leadership on this issue has been good this year, but in past years, this issue hasn’t had the traction it deserved in Congress because it lacked a dedicated leader from within — someone who would push this issue day after day, year after year, and not just during election years. Ed Royce probably comes the closest, but now that he’s Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the span of his agenda is as wide as the world itself. Royce’s leadership on this issue has been essential, but he simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to be its battle captain in Congress. Suzanne could, and she would.

On this issue — the issue of saving the North Korea’s next generation from its own government, and saving American’s next generation from whatever weapons Pyongyang will eventually sell to terrorists — Suzanne Scholte has led, year after year, often as an underdog, and usually when the issue was either unpopular or forgotten, because of the inexhaustible drive of her conscience. That leadership has made Suzanne an influential “outsider” among members of Congress in both chambers, and in both parties. She knows how to build a coalition that spans cultures and continents.

In the contest between good and best, Suzanne Scholte is not only the best, but also the best we’ll ever see. If Suzanne weren’t one of my closest friends precisely because of her enduring leadership on this issue, I wouldn’t have written this post. It has been my policy for the last decade that I don’t endorse candidates — based largely on the knowledge that you don’t care who I endorse — but a candidate this great demands an exception, and perhaps calls the whole rule into question. (There are also great Democratic candidates, such as Albio Sires of New Jersey, who also deserve our support.)

Until today, I had never imagined that I could support a candidate because of a single issue. Once again, I’m about to make an exception, because on this issue — an issue I care so deeply about, and which many of you also care very deeply about — Suzanne is an exceptional candidate. I don’t have to agree with Suzanne about every issue. All I ask is that just one member of Congress out of 535 cares about this issue as much as I do.

Knowing Suzanne Scholte as well as I do, I’ve watched her dynamism, her integrity, her compassion, and her leadership. And, above all else, I’ve observed her extraordinary determination, which seems to have no half-life. I can’t fail to use this site to support her. What a terrible lost opportunity it would be to fall to put our strongest champion into the corridors of power. Image the possibilities with Suzanne Scholte in Congress, and one day, sitting on the Foreign Affairs Committee. I hope you’ll support her, too.

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Correction: A previous edition of this post said that in the 2010 election, Gerry Connolly won by 1% of the vote. The actual percentage was 0.4%. This post was originally published on May 17, 2014 at around 1800 hours, and was “bumped” by changing the posting time.

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Americans hate foreign policy, and also, the lack of one

One lovely April morning, the world awakened to find that its greatest power has fallen under the control of a cabal of perky Starbucks baristas. As it turns out, I am not alone in ridiculing the weaponization of tweets and hashtags as a substitute for tough and substantive national security policymaking as the world’s predators seize the day.

Conspiratorial minds will suppose that this is all somehow coordinated, and maybe some of it is, but I assure you that I’ve been excluded. This snub stings all the more, given that the illuminati’s standards of membership are permissive enough to include liberals (James Carville, Fred Hiatt), self-described “realists” (Richard Haass, see also), whatever you call David Brooks, and conservatives like Jonah Goldberg, whose criticism (unsurprisingly, to many of you) looks spot-on to me:

Step 1: Be Barack Obama (and not George W. Bush).

Step 2: ????

Step 3: World peace!

(With apologies to South Park.)

As a candidate, Obama held a huge campaign rally in, of all places, Berlin, touting his bona fides as a citizen of the world. The crowd went wild, as he talked at length about a world without walls (you had to be there). As president, in his first major speech abroad, Obama suggested to a Cairo audience that the fact America elected him was all the proof anyone should need that America had turned the page.

It all seems very strange now in retrospect, but in his defense, you can understand how seductive this notion must have been. The whole world — at least the parts of it that Obama listens to — was telling him that replacing George W. Bush with Barack Obama was just the ticket for what ailed the planet. The fervor was all so detached from facts on the ground that the Nobel Committee even gave Obama a Peace Prize for the stuff they were sure he was going to do, eventually. [….]

The problem, of course, is that Obama never had a Plan B. He never really thought he’d need one, and besides, he never much cared about foreign policy. Particularly in his first term, his top priority was to keep international problems from distracting from his domestic agenda. He ordered the surge in Afghanistan but then went silent about that war for years. He passive-aggressively let a status-of-forces agreement with Iraq evaporate. Even his controversial policies — targeted killing, drones, etc. — were intended to turn the war on terrorism into a no-drama technocratic affair out of the headlines.

If you prefer something more academic, then try this article by Walter Russell Mead in Foreign Affairs.

America has two political parties, but in the field of foreign policy, it has many warring tribes — Wilsonians, Jacksonians, liberal isolationists, radical leftists, paleoconservative isolationists, neoconservatives, and “realists.” (All of these labels are imprecise, misleading, and overlapping.) It’s rare that these warring tribes reach a consensus as quickly as the one they reached last month — that our President’s foreign policy has a viscosity somewhere between the gelatinous and the vaporous. The President’s ratings on foreign policy now stand at 38.7% approval and 52.7% disapproval, for a difference of -14%.

This is not just a case of the President’s approval ratings on foreign policy being dragged down by other unpopular policies. His ratings on foreign policy are lower than his handling of the economy (41.8% approve, 54.5% disapprove, net -12.7%), Obamacare (40.7% approve, 51.6% disapprove, net -10.9%), or his presidency as a whole (43.9% approve, 51.4% disapprove, net -7.5%).

For now, Obama can take some comfort from the fact that this still isn’t as bad as Bush’s approval rating on foreign policy in May 2006, the low point of the Iraq War. But now that he has been marked as a weak leader, his ratings will enter Bush and Carter territory if more power-grabs by tyrants fill the headlines, and if Republicans make an issue of his weakness before the mid-term elections.

But if they did, what would they argue for? Do these results tell us anything useful about the kind of foreign policy Americans want? As The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt noted here, citing Robert Kagan here, the voters have a much clearer idea of what they don’t want than what they do want. They want to disengage from the world, but they don’t like what disengagement looks like. They don’t want us involved in ground wars overseas, but they’ve also been reminded that they don’t want the kind of passivity and drift that invites aggression, war, and proliferation. They don’t want Russia invading its neighbors, China threatening to do the same, Iran nuking up, and North Korea nuking off. They won’t like it if the Taliban seize Kabul, if Al Qaeda seizes Mosul and Damascus, or if Assad gasses his way to victory. (This is why isolationist fads like those of Rand Paul and his zanier father are more popular in the abstract than in practice. In practice, his foreign policy would look a lot like Obama’s, only with fewer tweets, and without its unsettling Gidget vibe.)

In other words, Americans expect pax Americana, but deny it like closeted Baptist preachers, and hate paying its costs. Our allies (some of which are better described as “supplicants”) won’t call for it publicly, but they expect it, too (too much, as I’ve often argued). That’s why President Obama went to Asia — to reassure allies and supplicants alike, although it’s far from clear that they feel more reassured now. Even before the President returned, he found himself defending his foreign policy from critics across the political spectrum. That defense was the torch of a pyromaniac in a field of straw-men,* a cheap slander that called all of the President’s diverse critics war-mongers:

“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force,” Mr. Obama said, “after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget. And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”

The president did not name his critics, except to refer to them as foreign policy commentators “in an office in Washington or New York.” He also referred to the Sunday morning talk shows, where Senator John McCain of Arizona, a fierce Obama critic, is a ubiquitous guest.

“If we took all of the actions that our critics have demanded, we’d lose count of the number of military conflicts that America would be engaged in,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. [N.Y. Times]

Nonsense. It was Obama who intervened in Libya (which I supported) and who wanted to intervene in Syria (which I opposed, because I didn’t believe he had the will to see it through to a favorable conclusion).

Even this is beside the point, because some of the toughest and most effective strategies that President has overlooked don’t involve the direct use of military force at all; they involve strategies like more aggressive information operations, more support to resistance movements against hostile leaders abroad, and a more effective use of “hub-blocking” strategies, like financial sanctions.

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So after the backlash from Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re now seeing the back-backlash. No, Americans still don’t like taking casualties in foreign wars when they don’t understand what compelling interests justify those losses. Part of that is due to an insufficiency of explanation, explanation often being the greater part of leadership.

Now that Bush isn’t President anymore, our screens are seldom filled with funerals and casualty statistics, although the funerals and casualties continue. That double standard relieves Obama of the burden of reminding the voters that people based in Afghanistan and sponsored by our enemies attacked and killed 3,000 American civilians, and likely cost us trillions of dollars in damages, risk insurance, and domestic security costs. It also relieves him of the burden of explaining exactly what plausible outcome his Afghan strategy is supposed to achieve, aside from yielding uncontested domination of most of the Afghan countryside — and eventually, its cities — to the Taliban. It won’t relieve him of the swift and severe impact that Chinese aggression in the Pacific would have on our economy. And it won’t relieve the rest of us of the incalculable long-term costs of global anarchy.

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