War Stories

A Foreign-Policy Repair Manual

Six priorities for President Obama.

Barack Obama

“President-elect Barack Obama”—the phrase alone does more to repair the tarnished image of America in the world than any action George W. Bush might ponder taking in his final weeks of power. The very fact of a black president with multinational roots unhinges the terrorists’ recruitment poster of a racist, parochial, Muslim-hating United States. It revives Europeans’ trans-Atlantic dreams just as their own union seems to be foundering. It is bound to inspire reformers everywhere who seek to break through their own socio-political barriers. It revivifies America as a beacon of democracy—not through thumping arrogance and brimstone but, more elegantly and potently, by sheer example.

But President Obama will enjoy this gush of hope and favor for six months at most. After that, he’ll have to earn it through his actions and policies. Here are a few suggestions:

Announce that America is back and open for diplomacy. Make a big speech to the U.N. General Assembly laying out your broad goals. This will signal that you value international institutions. Then send your personal delegate—Vice President Joe Biden or some trusted eminence like Colin Powell—to the Middle East to lay the initial groundwork for renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks (even if they go nowhere, the effort might make moderate Arabs more cooperative on other issues); open a line to Syria (offering full ties and other goodies in exchange for splitting from Iran and ceasing support for terrorists); and deliver a message to Iran (not to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but to the real powers), offering negotiations on all disputes. Reappoint Dennis Ross, or someone like him, as permanent Middle East envoy (a slot shockingly unfilled for the last eight years). These steps alone will give the impression that the United States is once more ready to act like a serious major power.

Get out of Iraq. The Iraqis have done you a favor by insisting that a new Status of Forces Agreement include a timetable for withdrawal. Take the deal. If it turns out they were bluffing and don’t really want us to go, demand dramatic, substantive progress on political unity, provincial elections, division of oil revenues, and all the other issues on which the Iraqis have yet to budge. Nobody’s talking about pulling out all U.S. troops (unless, again, the Iraqis kick them out). Use the troops that remain as leverage. Bush had a decent idea when he set “benchmarks” for the Iraqi government to meet. The problem was that he didn’t enforce them—he neither rewarded the Iraqis for meeting certain deadlines nor punished them for failing to hit many others. Revive the idea with sticks and carrots. The whole point of the “surge”—and of any continued U.S. military presence—was, and is, to create the conditions for achieving political objectives: a stable, self-sustaining, democratic Iraq. Set benchmarks toward that goal. If the Iraqis don’t meet them, withdraw another two or three brigades; if they do meet them, keep the brigades there a little longer, if they’re wanted, to help solidify the progress. The more targets the Iraqis meet, the more stable the country will become and the less they’ll need us in the long run.

Rethink Afghanistan. When Gen. Dan McNeil recently ended his tour as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, he said his successor would need 400,000 troops (including those of the Afghan National Army) to stabilize the country. That just isn’t going to happen. The two or three brigades that we’ll probably soon be redeploying to southern Afghanistan will help commanders perform certain tactical missions without relying too much on air power—i.e., without unavoidably killing civilians and thus alienating the people we’re trying to win over. But they won’t be enough to “win” the war. The real threat is not the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan; it’s the sanctuary and replenishing ground that they have in neighboring Pakistan—and the possibility of chaos or the rise of radical Islamists there. The 1,200-mile-long border cannot be fully secured. Nor can we keep bombing the Taliban across the border without alienating the Pakistani people and weakening their new government. The only way to defeat the Taliban is to make it worth the Pakistanis’ while to help—to make them calculate that clamping down is both feasible and in their security interests. So train the Pakistani (as well as the Afghan) army; increase economic aid; and embark on intensive diplomacy to relax tensions between Pakistan and India, so that Pakistan’s leaders don’t see fighting the Taliban as a diversion from their main threat.

Normalize relations with Russia. This may sound cold, but Russia is too important—on energy, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, peace in the Middle East, nearly everything—for our relations to get warped in a new Cold War over the integrity of South Ossetia. Moscow’s aggression should not be blithely tolerated, but it’s absurd to respond by, say, admitting Georgia into NATO. First, members are required to have recognized borders, which Georgia lacks. Second, do you—do any Americans—really want to go to war for Tbilisi? (This is what security alliances are all about.) Impose economic and diplomatic pressure. But also assure the Russians that we have no intention of further NATO expansion. Tell them we will proceed to deploy missile defenses in the Czech Republic and Poland if the system works (a nudge-and-wink signal that we probably will not proceed after all). This is not “appeasement,” since we have—or should have—no interest in behaving otherwise. Resume strategic arms talks, and demand in return that Moscow reaffirm the Reagan-era treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, which Vladimir Putin has been threatening to abrogate. Putin has been riding high these past few years on the vast revenues brought in by high oil prices; the recent plunge and the crash of his stock market might make him more pliant. In short, the time is ripe for a policy of applying pressure where our differences matter and giving way where they don’t.

Cut and shift the military budget. Here’s a new mantra: What’s important is not how much we spend but what we buy. The Pentagon’s budget is locked almost entirely in the patterns set by the Cold War struggle with Soviet communism. In a way, Bush did us all a favor by placing “emergency war funds” in budget supplementals—not just money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also for what the Pentagon calls “the longer war on terrorism.” The supplemental for fiscal year 2009 amounted to $172 billion ($70 billion in new funding and $102 billion left over from FY 2008). This means that the baseline military budget for this year—amounting to $541 billion—has little if anything to do with any of these ongoing wars. Of that sum, $125 billion goes for personnel costs and is therefore untouchable. But this leaves $416 billion on the table—a huge sum of money that should not be regarded as holy. Do we really need another new submarine or aircraft carrier, another wing of F-22 or F-35 “stealth” fighter planes, or a new high-tech “future combat system”? That’s where much of that $416 billion is going. It’s time for a radical reassessment of the military budget—the first since the end of the Cold War. Put someone like Robert Gates in charge. (He has the forward vision and the universal legitimacy.) In any event, take it out of the Pentagon, where it will be mired in parochial interests and interservice rivalries and back-rubbing. (Isn’t it odd that the Army, Navy, and Air Force have been evenly splitting the military budget, within a percentage point or two, every year for the last four decades? Is that the result of national-security needs—or bureaucratic politics?) We don’t have the money to perpetuate this charade.

Refine intelligence. Presidents respond to events, many of them unseen; therefore, they require good intelligence. More to the point, they need to know what their intelligence reports really say. The “intelligence community” consists of 16 agencies; sometimes, one or more of them file dissenting footnotes to major points of a report. By the time the report gets boiled down to “executive summaries” and passed up the chain of command, the footnotes get excised. Demand that they be put back in. If they have implications for policy, have them debated before the National Security Council. Pay attention to the source of the dissent. For instance, the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear-weapons program. It might have been useful for the NSC to know that one of the two dissents to that view was written by the intelligence branch of the Energy Department—which runs the U.S. nuclear-weapons program. The NIE also asserted that Iraqi unmanned aerial vehicles could deliver biological weapons. The president should at least have been told that the intelligence branch of the U.S. Air Force—which presumably knows something about the subject—disputed this finding. Commission a study of all NIEs of the past decade—specifically of patterns revealing which agencies have been most consistently right and wrong on what topics. The one with the best records should be made the lead agency on all future NIEs on the subject. Those with the worst records should be cleaned out. Otherwise, you’ll be gazing at the world through tinted glasses.