Anticipating the Coming Debate Over Foreign and Security Policy

When Washington returns in 2010 we will have a new issue to challenge the effective management of an already incredibly crowded agenda - a review of our intelligence, homeland security and counter-terrorism strategies and performance in the aftermath of the Nigerian-who-got-through. 

The coming debate could radically impact Washington's agenda in 2010. Given that these issues touch on a wide range of Congressional committees and areas of the Administration, and that there is a wide-held belief in DC that the reforms made during the Bush era were not completely effective or well done, it is going to be hard to control and contain the debate once it begins.   That there are so many different Congressional committees involved in this debate is itself a sign of the lack of coherence of the new counter-terrorism regime ushered in during the Bush era, from the DNI to DHS itself. 

The truth is that it may be time for the country to have a more systematic, thoughtful discussion about how to best deal with the global threat of terrorism, the nature of terrorism itself and how the two wars we are already fighting fit into our overall global national security strategy.  Over the last few days you could feel the American people saying - Nigeria? Yemen? Is there no end to this? How does all this relate to what is happening in Iran, Pakistan, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan? It has been almost a decade now, with trillions spent, ten of thousands of American causalties, vast new bureaucracies built, a new significant escalation in Afghanistan, extraordinary opportunity costs - and what have we accomplished? Are we safer? What can we do better?  These are reasonable questions for the American people to ask.

If this debate lasts for months - which it could - it may very well knock other important priorities off the legislative calendar this year, a calendar that was already in danger of being incredibly overloaded.  Could we end up spending the coming year finishing health care, and having long and significant debates our economic and security policies, pushing a whole array of other important - but less important issues - off the agenda?

Does all this seem like an overreaction to a lone man who got through Fortress America? Perhaps, but that the vast new intelligence appartus built over the past decade didn't put some now clearly reasonable pieces together to stop a threat, and the attack demonstrated how the global jihadi network has spread beyond the places we are already significantly engaged abroad, has raised some critical issues which now seem inevitably headed towards a big, sustained and perhaps overdue conversation. 

Rather than fighting the consolidation of the 2010 agenda it may be in the interest of the governing party to embrace it, and not look defensive, as if they have other things they would rather be talking about.   Peace and prosperity drive most elections in the US, and 2010 may end up being no different.  The Republicans are already jumping on the Christmas Day attempt, and will no doubt spend the year ahead trying to reorient the national discussion to an area - national security - they feel will advantageous for them.  But given their actual record in the decade just past, and the extraordinary mess they left for others to clean up, the Republicans may rue the day the debate became about national security, for there is no way to have this debate without talking about the epic foreign policy and security failures of the Bush era, something they simply cannot disown.

So rather than wishing this new issue environment away, the President and the Democrats might decide rather to make it their own, and spend their political year making their case for how they hope to bring peace and prosperity to a country desperately seeking it.   They can take on the anarchronistic and disproven arguments of the conservatives head on, defining their vision and plans, and making very clear, where, on the two most important issues facing the nation, it is exactly they want to take us.  Not at all an unreasonable thing for the American people to ask of the governing party in a time of great transition and national challenge.

Happy New Year all. 

And a new year it will be.

Mon PM Update: On his Mother Jones blog David Corn chews over this essay a bit, and provides some thoughts of his own.

A Generation’s Loyalty May Be at Stake

As Congress returns from its holiday vacation, it and President Barack Obama need to address a number of challenges facing the country from health care reform to jobs and what strategy to pursue in Afghanistan.  How the Democratic leadership deals with these issues may well determine the future loyalty of an entire generation of new voters, and with it the future of the Democratic Party.

A recent study by two economists, Paola Giuliano and Antonio Spilembergo, entitled "Growing Up in a Recession," suggests that experiencing an economic recession during the impressionable ages of 18-25 can have lifelong effects on a person's attitude toward government and its role in the economy. The Democratic Party's most enthusiastic and loyal new constituency, Millennials (born 1982- 2003), have had their young lives thoroughly disrupted by the current economic downturn. With their level of unemployment exceeding 25%, what is for other generations a Great Recession is for Millennials their very own Great Depression.  Such an experience is likely, according to the new study, to increase Millennial support for policies that favor government redistribution of income and other liberal economic ideas.

Jobless MillennialHowever, Giuliano and Spilembergo also demonstrate that this same experience often makes young people less trusting of government institutions. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat suggested recently that the difference between the Democratic New Deal loyalties of the GI Generation that came of age during the Great Depression and the greater Republican orientation of Generation X that experienced Jimmy Carter's stagflation economy in the 1970s is the degree to which government dealt effectively with the economic crisis of their youth. "When liberal interventions seem to be effective, a downturn can help midwife an enduring Democratic majority. But if they don't seem to be working - or worse, if they seem to be working for insiders and favored constituencies, rather than for the common man - then suspicion of state power can trump disillusionment with free markets."

This raises the stakes for what Congress does in the next six months to new heights. Millennials, more than one-third of whom lack health insurance, will be watching closely to see if their needs are addressed in the final version of health care reform, something Millennials support to a far greater extent than any other generation. Of course, failure to pass meaningful reform may well sound a death knell for the emerging Democratic majority that the Obama campaign created last year. 

But Millennials care even more about jobs and the health of the economy.  With record unemployment among members of this generation, any jobs package Congress puts forward must specifically meet the concerns and needs of Millennials. In particular, Congress must deal with the high cost of education (something Millennials still see as the ticket to future economic success), the lack of job opportunities even at the intern level for those just entering the work force, and the lack of access to fundamental job skills training that community colleges can provide to those ready to go to work soon.

While the Democratic leadership often believes that today's youth thinks about issues of war and peace in the same reflexive way that young Baby Boomers did four decades ago, Millennials are more likely to want to understand the mission and strategy for success in Afghanistan before making up their mind on whether or not to support a deepening American involvement in that conflict. With Millennials providing the overwhelming majority of front line troops, however Congress chooses to pay for that campaign, it must ensure that those who do go to fight are better equipped than the military force George W. Bush initially sent to Iraq.

The effectiveness of any legislation Congress adopts over the next six months will not be known for years, but the way Congressional Democrats approach their policy decisions will be clear enough to Millennials.  The stakes are large and will have long-reaching impact. If the decisions are made by cutting deals with special interest groups, none of which represent this generation and its financial concerns, or by compromising Millennial principles of equity and social justice, members of the generation are likely to sit out the 2010 midterm elections and wait for their favorite messenger, Barack Obama, to return to the ballot in 2012 before making their future preferences known. If that happens, the results in the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey last month will only be a prelude for a much bigger Democratic disaster next November.  If, instead, Democratic leaders take off their generational blinders and recognize that the base of their party is now made up of an overlapping core of Millennials, minorities, and women and respond accordingly, they will help to solidify the Democratic loyalties of America's largest generation for decades to come. 

For more on this subject, see Winograd & Hais' previous essay, For Millennials, It's The Economy, Stupid.

Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires…and Presidencies?

Even for someone as personally cautious as he appears to be, President Barack Obama's decision about the future direction of U.S. policy in Afghanistan has been a long time coming. This has produced charges that he is "dithering" from his Republican opponents and feelings of unease from his Democratic allies. Still, the president's caution is understandable. What he decides now will directly impact the lives of the young Americans who serve in the nation's armed forces, have important national security and economic ramifications, and influence his party's and his own election chances in 2010 and 2012.  Given the stakes, hasty decision-making is really in no one's best interests.

Moreover, as a student of history, Obama certainly knows that caution is a useful watchword when it comes to Afghanistan. It has successfully resisted foreign incursions since the time of Alexander the Great, who had good reason to call it the "Graveyard of Empires."

Unfortunately, this is one matter on which public opinion offers the president little clear guidance to inform his decision-making. Recent survey results on the issue are almost as complex, contradictory, and cloudy as are events in Afghanistan itself. If anything, the murky polls on the issue go a long way toward explaining why President Obama is moving so slowly in making and announcing a decision.

At this point, only one thing is unambiguous: since mid-Summer Obama's personal favorability, his job performance ratings, and his marks on most specific issues such as health care reform, the economy, and foreign policy have generally fluctuated within narrow boundaries. By contrast, he has lost ground on his handling of the Afghanistan situation across all public surveys.

An early November Pew survey is typical: since July the president's rating for his handling of the economy and energy policy is up four percentage points each and for health care up one. His scores for dealing with foreign policy and the budget deficit are down by three points and one point respectively. However, his rating for handling Afghanistan dropped by eleven points over the same period (from 47% to 36%).

In large part, of course, President Obama is being punished for appearing indecisive. The electorate appreciates certainty rather than uncertainty. Once he does determine and announce what his administration's Afghan policy is, his marks will almost certainly rise, at least in the short run, regardless of what that policy is. It's the longer run that's going to be more difficult.

One major concern is that Americans increasingly question the correctness of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. At this point, slightly more Americans endorse our military efforts in Afghanistan than reject them.  However, support for the mission is narrow and declining. According to Pew, a slight majority (56%) says that the initial decision to use force in Afghanistan was right, but that number is down from 64% in January. Similarly, a November Quinnipiac survey indicates that a slight plurality (48%) believes that the U.S. is doing the right thing in fighting the war in Afghanistan, down from 52% in October.

Given the sharp division about the efficacy of the mission it is not surprising that the public is equally divided about what U.S. Afghan policy should be going forward. Exactly how divided depends on the way pollsters pose the question.

Pew simply asked if U.S. troop levels should be increased, decreased, or kept at current levels over the next year. A slight plurality (40%) want them decreased, while 32% favor an increase and 19% want the number of American troops in Afghanistan to remain the same as now. Those percentages are essentially unchanged since the beginning of 2009.

The Quinnipiac question informed respondents that "General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has asked President Obama to send 40,000 additional combat troops" and asked if the president should send those forces or not. When the matter is specifically linked to an appealing military figure, a slight plurality (47% vs. 42%) endorses committing more American troops to Afghanistan. Even so, a majority (54%) is unwilling to have "large numbers" of U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan for more than two years, a number that has increased by six points since October. Only a quarter (27%) is willing to make the commitment of American forces to Afghanistan open-ended, for "as long as it takes."

Adding to the difficulty and complexity of President Obama's decision-making is the fact that the very groups within the electorate that most decisively contributed to his election win a year ago and most strongly support his other policy initiatives now-Millennials (young voters 18-27), minorities, and his fellow Democrats-are most resistant to sending additional troops to Afghanistan. In the Pew survey, most Millennials (53%) and Democratic identifiers (51%) want American forces in Afghanistan to be decreased during the next year. According to Quinnipiac, large majorities of Democrats (61%), African-Americans (73%), and Hispanics (60%) oppose sending the 40,000 new troops to Afghanistan that General McChrystal has requested. By contrast, in both surveys, most Republicans favor committing more forces to the Afghan conflict. The implications of this unique public opinion configuration for President Obama's domestic policy goals, such as health care reform, are worrisome and will take all of his strong communication skills to overcome.

One thing that may help him to do that is to properly define why America is in Afghanistan in the first place. Quinnipiac separately asked if "eliminating the threat from terrorists" and "establishing a stable democratic government" are worthwhile goals for which American troops would "fight and possibly die in Afghanistan." Clear majorities endorsed the former goal (65%) and rejected the latter (54%), although, unfortunately, most Americans are not confident that the United States will ultimately achieve either goal. 

The stakes in Afghanistan are high for America and President Barack Obama. The administrations of the last three presidents to become involved in extended Asian land wars-Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and George W. Bush-ended badly. The president needs to get his decision about where to go from here right the first time. Unfortunately, public opinion offers little clear guidance. The electorate is evenly divided and increasingly pessimistic about both the American mission in Afghanistan and the strategic and tactical options available to deal with events there. Uniquely, the groups that support him most strongly electorally and in other policy areas are most opposed to expanded military efforts in Afghanistan. Yet, failure to act militarily may conflict with the president's overriding responsibilities as commander-in-chief and decisions taken or not taken now may have unforeseen consequences in the future. So take your time in deciding what to do, Mr. President-- it could be the most important decision you make.

Big Press Day for Upcoming NDN Speakers Rep. Adam Smith and Peter Bergen on Afghanistan

Next Wednesday, October 28, Afghanistan experts Congressman Adam Smith, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities of the House Armed Services Committee, and journalist Peter Bergen, the Co-Director of the New America Foundation’s Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative will speak to NDN about America’s challenges in Afghanistan. Both had important contributions to the conversation today in the press, Smith in lead quote in the New York Times and Bergen in an article in The New Republic.

Here's what Adam Smith, who recently traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, had to say in a piece on Taliban financing:

Despite efforts by the United States and its allies in the last year to cripple the Taliban's financing, using the military and intelligence, American officials acknowledge they barely made a dent.

"I don’t believe we can significantly alter their effectiveness by cutting off their money right now," said Representative Adam Smith, a Washington State Democrat on the House Intelligence and Armed Services Committees who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan last month. "I'm not saying we shouldn’t try. It’s just bigger and more complex than we can effectively stop."

And an excerpt from Peter Bergen's piece called "The Front: The Taliban - Al Qaeda Merger:" President Obama weighs whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, the connection between the region and Al Qaeda has suddenly become a matter of hot dispute in Washington. We are told that September 11 was as much a product of plotting in Hamburg as in Afghanistan; that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are quite distinct groups, and that we can therefore defeat the former while tolerating the latter; that flushing jihadists out of one failing state will merely cause them to pop up in another anarchic corner of the globe; that, in the age of the Internet, denying terrorists a physical safe haven isn't all it's cracked up to be.

These arguments point toward one conclusion: The effort to secure Afghanistan is not a matter of vital U.S. interest. But those who make this case could not be more mistaken. Afghanistan and the areas of Pakistan that border it have always been the epicenter of the war on jihadist terrorism--and, at least for the foreseeable future, they will continue to be. Though it may be tempting to think otherwise, we cannot defeat Al Qaeda without securing Afghanistan.

To see this important discussion on Afghanistan between Smith and Bergen, it's well worth viewing NDN's webcast at 7:00 pm on October 28. Details here.

UK Secretary of State Alexander Delivers Major Address on Development Policy to NDN

Yesterday, NDN hosted a special forum in New York City at which Douglas Alexander, the United Kingdom's Secretary of State for International Development, argued that governments aiding failed and fragile states must do more than work to support economic growth and provide basic services such as clean water, health and education; they must now "support political institutions and processes -- parliaments, political parties, civil society and the media."

In his address to the NDN forum, Alexander underlined the U.S. and British experience in Afghanistan, where U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited yesterday. NDN President Simon Rosenberg introduced Alexander at the New York City event.

Using Afghanistan, Somalia and other countries as examples of why a fresh approach to development work is needed, Alexander outlined a four-point plan aimed at building peace and functioning states in nations plagued by civil war and conflict:

  • Support for secure political settlements that will build the legitimacy of the state -- practical and lasting agreements on power-sharing.
  • Help to build effective juvenile justice systems and to reform the policy and army to offer people genuine safety and ways to resolve disputes.
  • Assistance to ensure states can survive on their own by helping governments to raise tax revenues and to encourage civil society.
  • Increased support for states to deliver basic services like health, education and water to meet the expectations of their citizens.

In his speech, Alexander said:

"I need hardly suggest to an audience such as this that politics matters in all societies. But in fragile states, politics can make the difference between violence and the path to prosperity...

"...Yet in the past, aid agencies have too often been afraid to engage in building political institutions for fear of being accused of interfering in a developing country's politics. But our experience teaches us that we cannot address the challenges we face in fragile environments, in particular, through technocratic solutions alone."

To read the full text of Secretary Alexander's speech, please click here. A video of the event will be available in the coming days right here on the NDN Blog.

UK Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander to Deliver Major Address to NDN

NDN is pleased to announce we will host a major address by Douglas Alexander, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for International Development on Monday, April 27, in New York. The event will be Webcast live.

Alexander will deliver a major speech on the relationship between conflict, fragility and development. He will argue that we must learn from our experience in Afghanistan, and apply those lessons to our approach to development in other conflict-affected states. If development efforts are to be successful, the link between development, politics and security must be better understood, and building peaceful states must be at the heart of this work.

Douglas Alexander is one of Britain's youngest and most dynamic Cabinet ministers, and as Secretary of State, he is the head of the United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID). He played a prominent role at the recent G-20 Summit in London, announcing British aid to help businesses in developing countries survive the global recession. A recent speech by Alexander on Afghanistan can be read here.

You will be able to watch this event live via Webcast at, and we hope you will be able to tune in and watch what promises to be an important and engaging address.  The Webcast will begin at 12:15 p.m. EDT.

Don't Forget Foreign Policy: Warning Shots over Pakistan

While new Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has been complimenting Sarah Palin on her good looks in New York, Pakistani border guards have been firing on U.S. helicopters in Afghani airspace. Spencer Ackerman writes:

The situation with the Pakistanis is deteriorating by the minute. On Sunday they fired “warning shots” at U.S. helicopters in Pakistani airspace. Yesterday they may have shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle in Pakistani airspace. And now the Pentagon has just announced that the Pakistani Army fired on U.S. troops in Afghan airspace.

The details are still murky, but it appears there was probably confusion about either orders or, more likely, where exactly the border lies. As Ackerman suggests, it's no international incident, but it could become one very quickly if a warning shot finds a target.

The economy certainly deserves a prominent spot in the debate this Friday(assuming it happens...), but I hope the planned topic of the debate-- foreign policy-- doesn't get lost altogether.  America is still confronting a number of tricky situations overseas-- situations that will require the engagement and leadership of a President-- and we can see some marked differences between the candidates.

The American electorate deserves to hear the candidates discuss our relations with Pakistan. How will they work with the new Pakistani government to stamp out al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in the Pakistani northwest? Under what circumstances might they support incursions from Afghanistan into Pakistani territory? Pakistan has been an important ally, but it's a country in flux, with internal rifts to sort out.  How Washington works with the government in Islamabad will have serious repercussions for both countries.

Al Qaeda Regroups, Israel Engages, the GOP Focuses on Obama's "Character"

Three more must reads this morning: 

Amid news reports that violence is rising in Afghanistan, the New York Times offers a major new look at how Bush Administration policies have contributed to the regrouping of Al Qaeda in the region. 

The New York Times editorial page reviews Israel's recent spate of diplomatic engagement in the Middle East, reminding us how these new bold initiatives are a direct repudiation of the now clearly failed Bush strategy for remaking the region.  

And the Washington Post offers an insightful piece on the growing conventional wisdom on how the GOP plans to go after U.S. Sen. Barack Obama - casting him as a politician without beliefs, willing to say and do anything to get elected. 

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