National Security Network

A 21st Century Approach to Foreign Policy

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Report 28 January 2010

Diplomacy Diplomacy Afghanistan counter-terrorism economic security iraq State of the Union


With renewed focus on the nation's economic agenda, many commentators have concluded that last night's State of the Union signaled a downplaying of national security.  But the speech , as well as the actions of his administration, underscore the point that affairs abroad are intertwined with the issues confronting Americans at home.

Last night, President Obama did away with the notion that the challenges to America's economy are easily separated from its ability to maintain influence globally. He warned Americans that powers like China, India, and Germany will not wait while the U.S. decides whether to "get serious about fixing the problems that are hampering our growth." 

He also seized on the core national security challenges facing the country: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the struggle against extremists.  Attending to Americans' concerns with two wars that had long been in strategic drift, the President reiterated his administration's focus on core objectives, and an end-state to American military involvement.  And on the subject of the terrorist threat, he outlined a clear and comprehensive strategy to keep the country safe. 

Lastly, reminding Americans "that America's greatest source of strength has always been our ideals," the President re-committed his administration to the repeal of a policy that has hindered our security and our values: "Don't ask, don't tell."  In sum, the President's words were an affirmation of his administration's strategy for the 21st century, one that brings together both foreign and domestic instruments to project American power.

Obama's focus on the economy enhances our competitiveness abroad.  America's power and influence abroad is based in large part on our economic vitality at home.  A strong economy at home is essential to promoting America's interests abroad.  As Brad DeLong and Stephen Cohen write in Foreign Policy, "Money brings a nation power," not just power to influence other countries' behavior but to propagate the "the ideas, concerns, fashions, norms, interests, amusements, and ways of displaying and behaving that come out of its culture." And as Fareed Zakaria writes in Foreign Affairs, "U.S. military power is not the cause of its strength but the consequence. The fuel is the United States' economic and technological base."

In his speech last night President Obama recognized the long term challenges we face with the economy, and how that affects our standing abroad: "China's not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany's not waiting. India's not waiting. These nations aren't standing still. These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They are making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs.  Well I do not accept second-place for the United States of America. As hard as it may be, as uncomfortable and contentious as the debates may be, it's time to get serious about fixing the problems that are hampering our growth."  To ensure America remains globally competitive and the base of its power stays strong, the President is seeking to increase U.S. exports.  In his speech last night the President said, "We will double our exports over the next five years, an increase that will support two million jobs in America.  To help meet this goal, we're launching a National Export Initiative that will help farmers and small businesses increase their exports, and reform export controls consistent with national security." 

The President signaled a renewal of efforts, abandoned after 2000, to forge a new consensus on global trade that can benefit American workers and business and promote America's security interest in the welfare and stability of other nations:  "We have to seek new markets aggressively, just as our competitors are. If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores. But realizing those benefits also means enforcing those agreements so our trading partners play by the rules. And that's why we will continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets, and why we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea, Panama, and Colombia." [Brad DeLong and Stephen F. Cohen, 12/23/09. Fareed Zakaria, Foreign Affairs, 6/08. President Obama, 1/27/10]

In a speech with a strong economic focus, the President took dead aim at America's core national security concerns.

On Counterterrorism: As the President explained last night, his administration's approach for dealing with terrorism has been comprehensive, resting on "substantial investments in our homeland security," "strengthened partnerships from the Pacific to South Asia to the Arabian Peninsula," interrogation, detention, and trial policies befitting a powerful nation, and successful military and law enforcement action against hundreds of al Qaeda's fighters and affiliates. 

While conservatives like Governor Bob McDonnell, and organizations like Keep America Safe have resorted to partisan attacks, the administration's record speaks for itself: more al-Qaeda fighters and affiliates killed or captured than in 2008; enhanced global respect for the U.S.; strong public confidence in the administration's handling of counterterrorism. 

Experts in the counterterrorism field concur.  A bipartisan coalition of national security experts, current and former members of Congress, diplomats, federal judges, prosecutors, high-level military officers, and government officials disagree with conservatives like McDonnell, believe that the administration's comprehensive strategy is the most effective for countering the terrorist threat and bringing extremists to justice.  [President Obama, 1/27/10. Pew, 7/23/09. CNN, 1/11/10]

On the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan: When the President took office, Afghanistan and Pakistan were in a downward spiral and U.S. policy was foundering.  In Iraq, U.S. strategy was adrift, with no clear indications of when the war would come to a close.  For both wars, the President led comprehensive reviews of the political, military, humanitarian and regional issues, which have set strategies with clear goals and envision an end-state to American military involvement.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the administration has settled on a strategy to defeat Al Qaeda, but focused on transitioning responsibility so that "our troops can begin to come home."  Echoing the view of his civilian and military advisors that the political and governance element are as important as countering insurgents, the President emphasized that in Afghanistan the U.S. "will reward good governance, work to reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans -- men and women alike."  As the President cautioned, there will be "tough days ahead," but so long as his administration is disciplined, focused on core goals and avoiding overreach, the war can be brought to a successful close. 

Speaking on Iraq, the President re-committed to the promise he made as a candidate to end the war:  "We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August.  (Applause.)  We will support the Iraqi government -- we will support the Iraqi government as they hold elections, and we will continue to partner with the Iraqi people to promote regional peace and prosperity.  But make no mistake:  This war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home." [President Obama, 1/27/10. NSNetwork, 3/02/09. President Obama, 12/01/09. Michael Mullen, 9/15/09. Stanley McChrystal, via Washington Post, 09/21/09. Secretary Clinton, via the NY Times, 11/20/09.]

On the threat of nuclear proliferation: Obama embraced the bipartisan consensus that the "the vision of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan...that seeks a world without [nuclear weapons]" is a critical national security priority.  As Mohamed ElBaradei, now former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, said, "The number of incidents reported to the Agency involving the theft or loss of nuclear or radioactive material is disturbingly high."  In the coming weeks, the administration and Congress have key opportunities to advance this agenda:  the administration's April Nuclear Security Summit with the goal of "securing all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world in four years," and the need to first conclude, then ratify "the farthest-reaching arms control treaty in nearly two decades" reducing US and Russian weapons stockpiles but ensuring America's deterrent. [President Obama, 1/27/10. Congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, 11/2/08]

Rejecting the false choice between protecting our people and upholding our values by pushing to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."  President Obama reminded Congress and the American public that our security and values are interconnected and equally important: "Let's reject the false choice between protecting our people and upholding our values." President Obama further explained that though America is diverse, there are common values all of us share, pledging to protect the rights of gay Americans who serve our country's military: "We find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution: the notion that we are all created equal, that no matter who you are or what you look like, if you abide by the law you should be protected by it; that if you adhere to our common values you should be treated no different than anyone else."  With this in mind, President Obama pledged, "This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are."

A growing number of military leaders and congressional figures have voiced support for repealing "Don't ask, don't tell."  These voices will be critical in turning the administration's pledge into reality.

General John Shalikashvili, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, released a statement yesterday through the office of Senator Gillibrand saying: "Don't ask, don't tell" was seen as a useful measure that allowed time to pass while our culture continued to evolve. The question before us now is whether enough time has gone by to give this policy serious reconsideration. I believe that it has."

Colin Powell, former Chairman JCOS and former Republican Secretary of State has said that the policy should be reviewed.

According to the Palm Center, on December 22, 2009, "ninety-six members of Congress sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates requesting all 2009 "don't ask, don't tell" discharge data in an effort to ready their arguments for the impending 2010 debate on the gay ban. The letter was authored by Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA), a member of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee and was signed by Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-PA), lead sponsor of the bill to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."

[President Obama, 1/27/10. Palm Center, 12/22/09. General John Shalikashvili, 1/27/10. Colin Powell, 7/5/09.]

What We're Reading

The leaders of one of the largest Pashtun tribes in Eastern Afghanistan have agreed to help battle insurgents. Pakistan hopes to play a role as a broker in proposed negotiations beween Taliban leaders and the Afghan government. NATO and Kazakhstan completed an agreement that will permit NATO allies to ship cargo through Kazakh territory to Afghanistan, providing an important alternative to other vulnerable routes. And an Australian security contractor working for an American company has been sentenced to death by an Afghan court for murdering a colleague and then trying to cover up the crime by staging a Taliban ambush.

The umbrella organization that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq has taken responsibility for three powerful bombings that targeted prominent hotels in Baghdad on Monday, calling them "legitimate targets."

The British panel looking into Britain's role in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq is to hear former Prime Minister Tony Blair this week.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Yemen that it could earn increased foreign aid by rooting out corruption, settling internal strife and protecting the rights of girls and young women. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is assigning more special forces personnel to Yemen as part of a broad push to speed the training of the country's counter terrorism forces.

The Obama administration will introduce a paper to the permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany outlining Iranian individuals and firms to be targeted in a new sanctions regime. Iranian officials continued to cast blame for the nation's recent political crisis on foreign interference, focusing their ire for the first time on Germany, one of the country's closest trading partners.

Federal prosecutors in New York are ratcheting up an aggressive strategy to pursue terrorists, drug traffickers and corrupt public officials who operate on foreign soil. And the Obama administration asked a military appeals court to uphold the convictions of Osama bin Laden's former driver and his videographer.

Haiti's devastated capital showed increasing signs of stirring back to life as Haitians restarted factory assembly lines, visited their barbers, sought replacement cell phones and even picked up their dry cleaning.

As new Honduran President Porfirio Lobo took office, former leader Manuel Zelaya flew into exile in the Dominican Republic under a deal that ends months of turmoil since his ouster by the military last summer.

North Korea said it detained an American man, who it said crossed its border with China earlier this week, becoming the second American in a month to allegedly enter the country illegally.

Talks aimed at preventing the collapse of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland appeared to be on the brink of failure when the British and Irish ministers withdrew after three days of talks

Commentary of the Day

David Ignatius believes that greater instances of military to military cooperation around the world are an underutilized forum for peace building.

The New York Times argues for Japan and the United States to continue exercising patience during the negotiations regarding the US Marin Base on Okinawa, reminding readers that the previous deal took a decade to hammer out.

Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky urges his fellow Russians to push for greater political freedoms in order to slow down backsliding which is leading Russia to a third-world style autocracy.