Medium: The view from Beijing

In polite company, sex or politics or religion are generally not to be brought up at the dinner table. For world leaders, that would not leave much else to talk about. But there are taboo topics still, particularly between President Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping: cybersecurity.

Here is an excerpt from an essay of mine at Medium, a new Web site that gives writers both a community and a platform.

“As President Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping get together this weekend in California for a much anticipated summit, the two men were expected to have a tough exchange over the future of another economically critical and formidable expanse of territory: cyberspace.

In confronting President Xi over Chinese hacking of defense targets, President Obama was no doubt prepared to use the moral high ground staked out by the U.S. His case was buttressed by recently leaked reports that laid bare the dozens of frontline American weapons programs and technologies penetrated by Chinese cyberspies.

Then came revelations this week in The Guardian and The Washington Post that revealed the extent of U.S. government surveillance of Internet activities around the world. From Skype calls to e-mails to texts, all is apparently fair game through what has been reportedly described as direct access to the servers of leading online service providers and technology giants such as Google and Microsoft, among others.

It is an unprecedented level of government monitoring that may even surprise, or regrettably impress, President Xi. It will certainly be familiar to him as Chinese citizens already live in a world where the wonderful spontaneity of electronic communication carries an undercurrent of potentially devastating liability.

For Americans it is a disappointing coda to a decade of wartime. America’s defense and intelligence bureaucracy, which began to drown in data during the 1990s, is so big that simply collecting more information is an operational and organizational goal in and of itself.”

Read the rest of the essay at Medium.

A common language

One of the best benefits of learning a new language is you begin to understand your own a lot better.

With that in mind, it is worth looking at China for an important window into how a country that some expect will become the world’s largest economy in a few years is wrestling with a political system and a leadership class struggling to stay connected to the nation’s wider population.

For example, lavish personal spending by officials, fueled by a cocktail of bribes and the state’s coffers, is no longer being tolerated. The New York Times found that everything from an official’s choice of wristwatch to the menus at bureaucrat haunts are being toned down at the behest of President Xi Jinping. Austerity has its own flavor in China.

The wielding of power in a functional political system during times of political and economic transition is critical to a nation’s competitiveness. Corruption, self-dealing and factionalism are liabilities that undermine any country seeking a leading role on the global stage. That is true in the private sector just as it is in government. When both realms are riddled with such flaws a country’s leaders are effectively selling their future to buy advantages today. Just as America wants to improve its own competitive position, other nations such as China are doing the same.

Read more at the American Security Project’s Flashpoint blog.

Pacific power

Last week, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter visited U.S. allies in Asia, the latest emissary sent forth to reinforce the shift of U.S. military and diplomatic focus from the Middle East and Central Asia to the Pacific.

The visit presents a unique chance to look beyond orders of battle or seapower studies to understand the nature of U.S. global power today.

After the opening decade of the 21st Century, assumptions about enduring U.S. primacy have been dashed. America, once gain, must earn its leadership role in the world. Nowhere is this more true than in the Pacific, where China’s rising economic and military might offer the region an increasingly realistic alternative to the U.S. Success economically, militarily and diplomatically in Asia requires a lot of work at home first.

Read more on the American Security Project’s Flashpoint blog.

Watching the horizon, from Chicago

There are times when you step onto Chicago’s Lake Michigan beaches with sand at your feet and azure water stretching to the horizon, it doesn’t feel like the Midwest.

It is a view reminiscent of the Mediterranean.

Just one of the reasons Chicago was a fitting host for the recent NATO summit. While it’s hard for the world’s myriad geopolitical problems to compete with the distraction of Wrigley Field, the conference in Chicago tackled crucial questions about the alliance’s future. Some questions are existential, such as how committed European countries really are to a common defense that won’t come cheap. Others are practical, including how to orchestrate a decisive withdrawal from Afghanistan.

For all the significance the White House made of the U.S. strategic pivot from the Middle East and Central Asia toward the Pacific, the Mediterranean region must be the urgent priority for the U.S.

Read more at The American Security Project’s Flashpoint Blog.

What’s the Big Idea?

President Obama came into office as a transformational president, a man of big ideas. Yet  he operates as a transactional one. It hasn’t gone well. The White House ends up fighting political battles on other people’s terms. Even the administration’s victories are portrayed as defeats. The forthcoming Defense Department strategic review this week is yet another example of this. It looks to be shaping up as an after-the-fact apology for hundreds of billions of dollars in the Obama administration’s planned military spending cuts. That’s too bad for the president, and the country. President Obama has the ability but so far lacks the will to elevate and re-frame the country’s national security debate beyond budget appropriation lines and great power conflict.

It is possible to spend less, and be stronger.

Right now, there is no bigger idea in presidential politics.

Read my take in my opinion piece on AOL Defense.

Filling The Void

A decade after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the World Trade Center site retains an aching emptiness.

Pledges to rebuild and restore the area to its former stature have done nothing to ease the pain of concentrated loss in that relatively small area. The construction crews working, the tourists gazing or the children laughing in strollers nearby haven’t been able to displace the pain that’s been resident in that pocket of southern Manhattan for almost a decade.

The crowds assembling there, and outside the White House, overnight to celebrate Osama bin Laden’s death reveal the country still has a desperate need for vengeance or justice against the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

A small group of commandos delivered it with the most significant special operations mission since World War II.

Courage here on the part of the special operations forces and paramilitaries from other government agencies is unmistakable. President Barack Obama also showed fortitude by going ahead with the mission, and by cutting out the Pakistanis from any foreknowledge. It was the right decision on both counts.

In such delicate and audacious endeavors, failure is as likely as success. In this case, the demise of one of the team’s helicopters underscores how close to disaster these forces must sometimes operate. And how much is on the line for not just their commanders and leaders, but for the country itself.

Failure would have presented an almost unthinkable set of problems that, with this success, will now not have to be over-analyzed or politicized to the country’s detriment.

The infamous 1980 attempt by President Jimmy Carter to free U.S. hostages in Tehran, Operation Eagle Claw, foundered not for lack of courage on his part or those of the Delta Force soldiers on the audacious raid, but because of mechanical problems with helicopters and then an accident inside Iran involving aircraft used by the rescuers. Machines failed the men. President Carter failed to right a wrong.

Instead, celebrations are the order of the day.

The operation to go after bin Laden succeeded by the most easily measurable metric. He is dead, shot, according to U.S. officials, after resisting the raiders. No Americans died.

Behind the joy there is still need for concern and caution.

Bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan was just 35 miles north of Islamabad. “The area is relatively affluent, with lots of retired military,” a senior administration official told reporters during an overnight conference call. Pakistan’s reliability remains in question. Hopefully, the men who killed bin Laden will not have to return to Pakistan again to free hostages from the U.S. embassy.

For now, the revelry drowns out the worries. It is unusual to cheer a death because such loss is always marked by absence. However, this one will begin to fill a void, and not just the one at Ground Zero.

Prisoner Of Pakistan

Seeking vengeance against a superpower is a risky game.

The Pakistani government is abandoning all caution and striking back at America with legal means by imprisoning Raymond Davis, a State Department contractor or employee reportedly with Army Special Forces experience, who killed two Pakistani men in Lahore he believed were a threat.

It is likely Mr. Davis was in fact a spy, which makes his close-range killing of the two Pakistani men with pistol shots a worrying development in the thorny relationship between U.S. and Pakistan intelligence services.It also makes the U.S. legal appeal to give him diplomatic immunity that much harder for the Pakistanis to stomach, even if Mr. Davis is an intelligence operative with official State Department cover.

Still, the U.S. is pulling out all the stops. Sending envoys and the public attention of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton all indicate the White House appreciates the stakes Mr. Davis faces.

It’s less clear if the Obama administration recognizes Pakistan’s anger is about much more than the killing of two Pakistanis, who may have worked for their own country’s intelligence services.

Mr. Davis has put a face on the larger U.S. clandestine and covert effort to target al-Qaeda and other groups inside Pakistan, particularly airstrikes by Predator and Reaper drones flown by the U.S. intelligence community.

Airstrikes by U.S. drones killed somewhere between 1,374 and 2,189 people in Northwest Pakistan from 2004 through 2011, according to figures in press reports and other information tallied up by the New America Foundation.

Prosecuting Mr. Davis for his split-second actions in a tactical situation gives the Pakistani government a way to put the legally dubious but highly effective drone attacks on trial. The theater of a trial would offer a suspicious and angry populace the proof that Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders together will stand against America. And they won’t have to fire a shot to do it.

The ready rage against Mr. Davis, however, is a last warning to the U.S. America has lost Pakistan.

The White House must steel itself this year as Pakistan’s reliability finally falters. Billions more in military and civilian aid are no longer adequate compensation.

The Bush administration learned of the strategic consequences of tactical decisions when Blackwater Worldwide guards killed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007, setting off a powder keg of resentment.

At best, the Obama administration could review whether the large numbers of lethal drone strikes are still necessary in Pakistan, and consider prohibiting their use elsewhere in the world. It may be too late, however. In that case, ceasing them might make little practical sense even if the moral and legal case against them is apparent.

The personal feeling of injustice by many Pakistanis is clear. The White House must not forget that the wave of political turmoil and demonstrations in the Middle East shows what the public suicide of just one man in Tunisia can do to radically change popular opinion in a frustrated and repressed region. Tragically, the wife of one of the Pakistani men shot dead by Mr. Davis has killed herself.

The Pakistani government will soon want meaningful revenge for the humiliation and injury caused by U.S. drone strikes. It will take more than a courtroom to get it.

Missing Tunisia’s Wave

On Jan. 25, President Obama delivered a State of the Union speech that sidestepped America’s toughest foreign policy problems and tepidly acknowledged Tunisia’s unrest. By Feb. 2, Tunisia’s wave of political upheaval washed over Egypt, Jordan and Yemen. A moment was missed.

The White House should ask for a do-over to address not just the nation, but also the world. It’s time for President Obama to take a crack at a televised primetime address acknowledging the historic change underway in the Middle East.

For a region that has wholly captured our country during the last decade, it is a singular opportunity for President Obama to re-frame America’s strategy, and hopes, for the Middle East. It is a rare chance to prove to a skeptical region that our country has righted its course there.

In President Obama’s well-received Cairo speech of 2009, he called for a “new beginning” in relations between Muslims and the U.S.  It is the perfect moment to appeal for a “new, new beginning” in U.S. relationships with the Middle East’s people and their leaders.

The ebbing U.S. occupation of Iraq underscores the moment’s importance to American foreign policy and our deliberate military disengagement.

U.S. priorities in the Middle East are too easily distilled down to the invasion of Iraq, containing Iran, supporting Israel and arming Arab allies. There is little discussion of why this all still makes sense.

If President Obama does not rise to meet the events of the past month, others will establish the narrative of this period, essentially picking up where he left off in Cairo. That may be the Muslim Brotherhood. Or Iran’s leadership may use its many voices.

At its best, such a presidential address can frame U.S. interests in the kind of aspirational language that promotes political freedom and checks tyranny. That was part of President Obama’s intent in Cairo in 2009. A televised address this week, delivered from the United Nations, would reinforce the seriousness of this message.

The track record of U.S. presidents being undone by events in the Middle East will continue unimproved if President Obama fails to be audacious. Failure to make a grand statement presents a considerable risk to his legacy. Another peril is the belief that his engagement in the tactical-minded politics of the region represent progress in U.S.-Middle East relations.

For the region’s authoritarians, for the hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating in Mideast squares for the first time, and for President Obama, the clock is running.

After all, look how much can change in just a week.

Power, Paper And People

Liberia 2009 by August Cole

For most of the past decade, the Defense Department assumed the lead role in American foreign policy.

Generals outshone ambassadors abroad. Military aviators stepped out of wondrous flying machines and into jobs helping locals solve economic and social problems in war-torn regions. Iraq and Afghanistan remain decidedly military-led efforts, drawdown of U.S. troops or not, as the Pentagon grudgingly embraces tenets of development and diplomacy once only held by people wearing flip-flops, not combat boots.

The military is unlikely to relinquish these missions and the State Department’s attempts to wrest back a stronger role haven’t worked so far.

The State Department’s latest effort to cast itself as a strong institution eager to shape its own destiny while remaining in sync with the Pentagon is a bureaucratic one: a strategy document.

It will take much more to emerge from the Pentagon’s slipstream in the 21st Century.

The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review released this month is anchored to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s laudable endorsement of “smart power,” which can be distilled down to a nation’s use of a combination of attractive and coercive means to get what it wants overseas.

Conceptually, the administration’s embrace of the idea makes great intuitive, and practical, sense. Harvard professor Joseph Nye deserves enormous credit for presenting an enduring framework with “smart power” even if it is more diagnostic than prescriptive.

Still, the awkwardly titled QDDR offers skeptics plenty of ammunition to doubt that the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development will see the urgent changes needed to shore up a neglected and invaluable cornerstone of American influence.

The report’s title echoes the Quadrennial Defense Review, an often-maligned Pentagon planning document that is produced every four years since the end of the Cold War. The derivative title and process reinforce the State Department’s inferior position. In big bureaucracies, little details matter.

The report’s release was late and arrived as federal budget headaches, historic legislation on nuclear weapons treaties and gay rights, as well as holiday shopping deals, are what’s news.

It too narrowly defines “civilian power” as residing in civilian government workers. America’s powers of attraction, and ability to project power, come from a much stronger cocktail.

Across Washington, it is hard to find a consistent understanding of what coordinated “smart power” really should look like, or who should pay for it. It isn’t any easier after reading the document.

This is a crucial time for the State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Money is tight, and will only get tighter. Foreign aid presents an easy target for incoming lawmakers who can argue that regions of our own country urgently need development aid first before sending billions overseas.

To fend off resolute skeptics, paperwork is flimsy protection. Strong relationships between strong leaders are what count.

Helpfully, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary Clinton have a track record publicly championing increased coordination and sharing between the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom. But Secretary Gates will be retiring soon. More humanitarian harmonizing will depend on his successor’s relationship with the State Department’s top official.

This future dynamic matters the most, far more than the QDDR, if the State Department is to reclaim turf currently held by the Pentagon. As it stands, that ground is the Pentagon’s to give, not the State Department’s to take.