Wednesday, April 14, 2010

'calculated subtlety and strategic depth'


Some fairly prominent conservative voices have tried to characterize the Obama administration's recent efforts on nuclear arms -- a new treaty with Russia, a shift in the Nuclear Posture Review -- as some kind of radical and dangerous step. One right-wing member of Congress went so far as to suggest the moves were evidence of President Obama deliberately betraying the nation.

It's been interesting, then, to see some GOP officials move in the other direction. Nicholas Burns, for example, served as undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Bush/Cheney administration. Last week, Burns praised the Obama White House:

"The president is clearly signaling that we are really decades away now from the end of the Cold War," he said. "That the real threats are no longer just those nuclear weapons states that bedeviled us in the past but they're the terrorist groups, and they're the renegade states like Iran and North Korea that are truly disruptive and a threat to the world.

"It seems to me that this new nuclear policy review by the Obama Administration strengthens the ability to the United States to counter that threat and safeguard American interests."

What's more, Christopher Ford served as U.S. special representative for nuclear nonproliferation under George W. Bush. He told ABC News that he's not fully persuaded by Obama's Nuclear Posture Review, but conceded that the policy is better than he expected it to be.

Ford ... applauded the president's focus -- as evidenced by this week's summit -- on keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists.

"This actually represents a very specific continuity in U.S. policy. Make no mistake, there are bad guys out there trying to acquire these technologies and they have no scruples whatsoever," he said. "I think that the Obama administration is quite right to focus heavily upon nuclear terrorism. One might quarrel as to whether the risk of nuclear attack as we are told is actually higher than say during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that's nitpicking. The bottom line is quite simple: This is an area that has and deserves broad bipartisan support in the U.S. political context."

It's a reminder of a larger dynamic we've seen repeatedly over the last year or so -- the major national security and foreign policy fights do not necessary pit left vs. right, or Democrats vs. Republicans. Rather, they pit the American mainstream against what's become of contemporary conservativism.

In the case of nuclear policy, President Obama is being attacked by far-right personalities like Rudy Giuliani, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and assorted right-wing members of Congress. The White House's approach has been endorsed, meanwhile, by the Secretary of Defense, the chairman and vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and top officials from the Bush and Reagan administrations.

We've seen this same dynamic -- Obama and the mainstream vs. confused conservative clowns -- again and again, on everything from Iran to civilian trials to Gitmo to torture.

And yet, we're apparently supposed to take Giuliani, Palin, and Gingrich seriously.

Steve Clemons: Obama's nuclear wizardry and Iran

Sir Francis Bacon once said, “In civil business, what first? Boldness. What second and third? Boldness. And yet boldness is a child of ignorance and baseness.”

At the Nuclear Security Summit President Barack Obama is presiding over in a transportation-gridlocked Washington this week, he is achieving a boldness — but not of bravado. Rather, it is one of calculated subtlety and strategic depth.

Obama has brought together 47 world leaders to get them to commit to safer nuclear materials management practices and prevent trafficking in weapons of mass destruction.

Obama is changing the direction of global gravity. He is also confronting Iran without the shallowness of bombing vs. sanctions vs. public humiliation that his administration has been flirting with. In the past week, and over the next month, Obama is showing what a U.S.-led world order should look like.

This is a huge shift, for the world hasn’t had much faith in America’s abilities to deliver. For example, in taking on strategic challenges like getting the Israelis and Palestinians on a two-state pathway; or ending the anachronistically simmering Cold War conflict in U.S.-Cuba relations; or persuading Iran to forgo a nuclear weapons track, most of the world has seen an America unable to achieve the objectives it sets out for itself.

In recent years, this has translated into a sense that the United States is a well-branded, globally important but underperforming country, whose influence is weakening — more like a national version of General Motors than Google.

Now, out of the blue, Obama is changing the game.

In a quick succession of deals focused on pre-empting a 21st-century nuclear nightmare, Obama has mended the foundation and infrastructure of a global nonproliferation regime that United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Vice President Dick Cheney and others of the pugnacious nationalist wing of the last administration worked hard to tear down.

And, by bringing together 47 key leaders, Obama is signaling to all stakeholders that a nuclear crisis with Iran and other potential breakout states would undermine the global commons.

Yet he is not vilifying Iran or its leaders. He is not making the same “axis of evil” mistake President George W. Bush did.

Instead, Obama is showing the benign and constructive side of U.S. power to other great states like India, China, Brazil and Russia. He is also inviting Iran to get in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and get back into a club that matters — where Iran could be respected for adopting a sensible course.

This comes on the heels of Obama’s release last week of a Nuclear Posture Review. It pledges to cut the size of the nuclear weapons footprint in U.S. arsenals while simultaneously influencing the cost-benefit realities for nations either “in” or “out” of the nuclear nonproliferation club.

The most obvious holdouts are Iran and North Korea — but frankly, there’s also Israel. The nuclear review also makes clear that the biggest nuclear concerns are nonstate actors, not states.

Obama has made a Faustian bargain in this new review. For he is allotting more financial resources to U.S. labs for maintenance and modernization of the current weapons stockpile, while pulling the plug on new weapons development.

Vice President Joe Biden should be given the credit for this crucial deal, which kept the national security right from mugging the president during the process.

Finally, Obama has signed a historic strategic arms reduction treaty with the Russians. This reverses the erosion of a relationship that — like the U.S.-China relationship — is crucial to virtually all the administration’s goals.

The primary reason driving Defense Secretary Robert Gates to stay on in the administration was to reconfigure U.S.-Russia relations. It had become so riddled with suspicion that Russia may well have vetoed any U.S. progress on the Iran front.

Senior Russian officials tell me that the tag team of Gates on the military side and Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher on the diplomatic front changed the climate from unproductive mutual skepticism and hostility to pragmatic respect. And this may now lead to new collaborations.

Coming next, in May, is sure to be reactivated U.S. leadership at the once-every-five-years review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Five years ago, Washington conveyed its disdain through envoys, whose policy postures were shaped by Bolton’s suspicions of international groups that bordered on a hyper-view of U.S. sovereignty.

This NPT review with U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice and Tauscher — and with Obama at the helm — is now a part of a soft but perhaps effective strategy to contain Iran’s nuclear pretensions.

The administration’s team has worked hard to entice China and Russia into a partnership so they do not become more allied with Iran’s course than Washington’s.

Obama has now showed two essential strengths. First, he can deliver what he promised in September 2009, when he chaired a special Security Council session. Second, his team understands the difference between approaches that have strategic depth and can move global players into new positions versus those that are vapidly bilateral and uncompelling to either party.

Before Obama reset this new global contract on nuclear issues, Washington and Tehran had negotiated via public jabs.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-led effort to impose harsh sanctions on Iran was more about feeding U.S. political opinion than successfully steering Iran in a new direction.

Getting key stakeholders sewn together on this, through revitalized global institutions, is a far more effective way to animate the choices Iran may make.

Obama’s global nuclear wizardry — focused on Iran and North Korea — may yet fail.

He still needs to find a way to deal with the Iranian leadership’s paranoia about Western regime change efforts. He also has to balance carrots for Iran with constraints.

But Obama and his team are finally showing a Nixonian deftness for creating new possibilities at just the time the world believed America was a global has-been.

Steve Clemons is director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes The Washington Note, a political blog.

Think Progress: Russian President says what distinguishes Obama ‘from many other people’ is that he is ‘a thinker.’

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, one of 47 world leaders gathering for the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America to relay his country’s concerns ahead of the summit. During one point in the interview, host George Stephanopoulos asked Medvedev what he thought of President Obama. The Russian leader coyly replied that he believed Obama distinguishes himself from “many other people” — presumably former President Bush — by being “a thinker”:

STEPHANOPOULOS: You’ve now met President Obama many times, at least fifteen meetings and phone calls –

MEDVEDEV: Sixteen times.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Sixteen, OK, I knew it was fifteen, I wasn’t sure about sixteen. What do you make of Barack Obama the man?

MEDVEDEV: [Obama] is a very comfortable partner. It’s very interesting to be with him. The most important thing that distinguishes him from many other people, I won’t name anyone by name, he’s a thinker. He thinks when he speaks.

STEPHANOPOULOS: (laughing) You have somebody in your mind, I think!

MEDVEDEV: Obviously I do have someone on my mind, I don’t want to offend anyone.

Watch it:

A worldwide poll taken last month found that the Obama administration’s global approving rating is 51 percent, a 17 percent jump from the Bush administration’s approval rating during its last year.

By most measures, the gathering in D.C. this week was a success. The United States received some key commitments it had sought on nuclear materials, and President Obama took another significant step in securing his leadership role on the global stage.

President Barack Obama's nuclear summit of 47 world leaders met two goals as it ended Tuesday: reaching international consensus on the need to keep weapons-grade nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists, and re-establishing U.S. leadership on nonproliferation.

Several nations agreed to dispose of weapons-grade uranium, end plutonium production, tighten port security and other voluntary steps. All participants endorsed Obama's call to secure vulnerable nuclear materials in four years, and agreed to seek further cooperation even as they stopped short of any enforceable international agreement.

"We have seized this opportunity," Obama said in a news conference closing the summit. As a result, he said, "the American people will be safer, and the world will be more secure."

Gary Samore, the arms control and nonproliferation coordinator for the National Security Council, told reporters, "We used the summit shamelessly as a forcing event to ask countries to bring house gifts. Almost every country came with something new."

They did, indeed. Ukraine and Chile are giving up their highly enriched uranium; Mexico will accept help in converting a research reactor to lower enriched fuel; Russia is shutting down its last plutonium-production reactor; and China at least expressed some willingness to move forward on new sanctions against Iran.

In the larger sense, David Sanger explained that President Obama could claim two "major accomplishments" from the gathering: "The summit meeting forced countries that had failed to clean up their nuclear surpluses to formulate detailed plans to deal with them, and it kicked into action nations that had failed to move on previous commitments."

As for the president himself, I seriously doubt the American public was following the summit details closely, and it's possible the developments will have no effect on his domestic standing at all. But those who were watching saw a president who took strides in demonstrating new levels of leadership on the global stage.

Love him or hate him, it's hard to deny the notion that Obama is an engaging public figure with skills of political persuasion. This week, we saw the president put these skills to use, perhaps in earnest for the first time, with a large group of international leaders. The French ambassador to the United States noted of Obama, "He's in charge, he's chairing the meetings, and this is where his personality plays a big part. He does it very well. And he feels very comfortable doing it."

In his role as host, though, Obama gave his fellow heads of state a taste of what has been familiar to many Americans who followed the domestic political debate over the past year: the president as seminar leader.

For four hours Tuesday, Obama led a pair of planning sessions to iron out the final details of the communique that was the culmination of the summit.

He sat at the center of the gathering, calling on leaders to speak, embellish, oppose and offer alternatives to the plan taking shape. Only the heads of state and, at times, two senior aides were allowed in the room, an exclusivity some diplomats called rare.

"He's never better than when he's the teacher," said a European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

Obama is trying a new approach to global leadership -- and it's working.

AIPAC gets 76 Senators and 333 Congressmen and women to back Netanyahu's far-right coalition in its public fight with the president of the United States. Now, take a look at Jewish-American public opinion:

[Obama] also scores 55 percent approval on how he handles U.S.-Israel relations, which is virtually unchanged since last September, when his handling of the relationship scored 54 percent approval.

General American opinion on how to handle the regional conflict shows solid support for president Obama's insistence that Israel stop building settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank:

52% of Americans support, and 31% oppose, the Obama administration’s demand that Israel stop all settlement-building. 62% of those polled said the growth of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory will only lead to greater hostilities. 52% of respondents support, and 31% oppose, the Obama administration’s demand that Israel stop all settlement-building. 53% thought the US should be ready to get tough with both sides in peace negotiations if necessary, while only 33% disagreed.

So 31 percent of Americans oppose their president's handling of Israel, but 75 percent of Senators and Congressmembers do. 52 percent of Americans back their president in a tough negotiation with a foreign leader, but 75 percent of the Congress back the foreign leader against the president.

What explains this remarkable discrepancy?

For all the talk about Abdulmutallab's unsuccessful terrorist plot on Christmas, I continue to think the Najibullah Zazi case is an under-appreciated victory for the United States. A deadly attack was thwarted; intelligence was collected; and justice was served. No torture, no military commissions, no need to stray from the legal process. The legal system was followed to the letter, and it not only worked beautifully, it saved a lot of lives.

We learned more about the Zazi plot this week, and the details are chilling, to put it mildly.

Zazi and his two Queens friends allegedly planned to strap explosives to their bodies and split up, heading for the Grand Central and Times Square stations -- the two busiest subway stations in New York City.

They would board trains on the 1, 2, 3 and 6 lines at rush hour and planned to position themselves in the middle of the packed trains to ensure the maximum carnage when they blew themselves up, sources said.

During Zazi's brief visit to Queens from his home in Denver last September, he rode the subway multiple times to the Grand Central and Wall St. stations, scouting where to best spread death and mayhem, the sources said. [...]

The attack was to take place on Sept. 14, 15 or 16 - as soon as the bombs had been assembled - with Sept. 14 the most likely date, sources said.

A fourth man, who helped plan this intended attack, has been quietly arrested in Pakistan, following Zazi's cooperation with authorities.

I realize conservatives don't want to talk about this story, which is probably why major media outlets aren't paying much attention to it.

But that's a shame because when it comes to counter-terrorism, this is a big f'in deal. Here we had a serious terrorist threat -- arguably the most important since 9/11 -- and an al Qaeda recruit who was poised to kill a lot of people. Obama administration officials thwarted Zazi's plan, took him into custody, read him his rights, and gave him a lawyer.

And the results couldn't have been better for the United States. Zazi will spend the rest of the his life behind bars, but only after cooperating with federal officials and becoming a valuable source of intelligence.

If Republicans really want to debate the efficacy of Obama's counter-terrorism policies, we can start right here.


Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was at the center of a terrorist plot to kill Americans last year. Najibullah Zazi was at the center of a terrorist plot to kill Americans last year. Both targeted U.S. transportation -- Abdulmutallab intended to attack on a plane, Zazi on a New York subway -- and both, fortunately, were thwarted and taken into custody.

The former became the subject of intense media interest, heated political debate, and far-right apoplexy. The latter has been largely ignored, especially by conservatives. Kevin Drum wonders why.

Am I missing something here? Because I don't remember Fox News putting Zazi on a 24/7 loop and insisting that trial in a civilian court was basically a surrender to al-Qaeda. The right wing world doesn't seem to be objecting to this latest development, either. Why? Is blowing up an airplane somehow different from blowing up a subway? Are civilian courts and Miranda rights OK if the terrorist plot is broken up before it can be carried out, but not after? Or what? I'm a little confused about the conservative position on this stuff. Help me out.

The disconnect is interesting, isn't it? Zazi, who was reportedly close to executing the worst domestic terrorist attack since 9/11, was treated the same way all suspected terrorists taken into U.S. custody are treated -- law enforcement prevented the attack, arrested the suspect, read him his rights, gave him a lawyer, charged him, and put him behind bars.

This should, in theory, outrage Republicans, right? GOP official don't believe counter-terrorism is a law enforcement issue, don't want suspected terrorists to be treated like criminals, and don't want them to be imprisoned on American soil. So why would the right stay silent?

I suspect it's because the Zazi case makes the Obama administration look fantastic, and conservatives would just as soon hope that no American ever hears about the story at all.

Indeed, this story is a classic example of the American system working to perfection, executed by officials who got everything right. A radical, al Qaeda-recruited terrorist and some accomplices were close to setting off deadly explosives in the two busiest subway stations in New York City. The consequences would have been devastating had they succeeded. Instead, federal officials learned of the plot, realized the attack was near, and prevented a catastrophe.

Once in custody, the administration followed the rule of law and it worked wonders -- Zazi cooperated with authorities, provided valuable intelligence, and rolled over on his accomplices. There was no torture, no military commissions, no Gitmo.

By any reasonable measure, from top to bottom, this was counter-terrorism working beautifully. The U.S. officials who made this happen are heroes.

So, why aren't Republicans whining incessantly? Because that would shine a light on the case, and that's the last thing conservatives want.

Conversely, why don't Democrats shine a light on the case, and maybe try to bring the story to the public's attention? Perhaps because, even now, Dems choose not to emphasize national security, even when it's a tremendous victory for a Democratic administration.

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