Commentary Magazine


Topic: Chuck Hagel

The End of American Naval Supremacy?

One of the most depressing things when I first went to Iraqi Kurdistan in the year 2000 was that while so many Iraqis understood that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s wars and decisions had frozen them in time, few truly understood the exponential advance of the rest of the world. Fourteen years ago, for example, students at Sulaimani University were still learning BASIC in their computer classes and faculty trained in the East Bloc had little concept of email let alone the Internet.

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One of the most depressing things when I first went to Iraqi Kurdistan in the year 2000 was that while so many Iraqis understood that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s wars and decisions had frozen them in time, few truly understood the exponential advance of the rest of the world. Fourteen years ago, for example, students at Sulaimani University were still learning BASIC in their computer classes and faculty trained in the East Bloc had little concept of email let alone the Internet.

So it seems to be the case with the United States and our military planners now. Four days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke of how American forces would soon be at pre-World War II numbers. Sequestration will force a further retraction. Adm. James “Ace” Lyons, U.S. Navy (retired) has noted that he commanded more ships in the Pacific Ocean during the Carter administration than exist in the entire U.S. Navy today. Whereas Democrats and Republican administrations both once sought the capability to fight two major wars simultaneously, the Pentagon now would have trouble mustering forces for one such conflict. This, of course, would be an open invitation for rogues and adversaries to take action while the United States is down or distracted. Enemies don’t take a pause just because Congress does. China most certainly has not.

Since World War II, the Navy has provided the backbone of America’s military strength, enabling the projection of force across the globe. And the aircraft carrier is the pride of the Navy, a veritable floating city and an immense system melding people with technology. This is certainly the case with the USS Gerald R. Ford, the Navy’s newest carrier officially launched this past November, and the first of the new, post-Nimitz Class carrier. The Navy has invested more than $12 billion in the Ford and its new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System. If carriers have a lifespan of 50 years (assuming the Pentagon can conduct regular maintenance and overhauls), then will the Ford last until 2064?

Not if China has its way. China’s economic health and internal stability might be exaggerated, but its military build-up is not. China doesn’t try to do everything the U.S. military can do, but it has instead concentrated on negating America’s strengths while pursuing its own, for example, with hypersonic aircraft. The Chinese make no secret of their work to develop anti-satellite weaponry, but it is their work to develop carrier-killer missiles that should really frighten Congress and American military planners. Imagine: a single hypersonic missile that can sink a ship carrying 5,000 Americans without any efficient defense. Like a car accident in slow motion, it appears that defense and naval analysts acknowledge the problem but yet the United States appears unable or unwilling to invest in what is necessary to counter the threat. Instead, as the Chinese continue to develop and deploy the missile, the Chuck Hagel defense simply seems to be stay beyond the range of the missile, effectively ceding Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and most of Southeast Asia to a Chinese sphere of influence.

It’s not just the carrier-killer missile which is a problem. This past June, the National Defense University released a report charting China’s continuing progress developing new, faster, and more precise cruise missiles. The authors note:

The potentially supersonic speed, small radar signature, and very low altitude flight profile of cruise missiles stress air defense systems and airborne surveillance and tracking radars, increasing the likelihood that they will successfully penetrate defenses.

Continuing to outline the report, The Diplomat explains:

Moreover, cruise missiles can be produced cheaply, allowing China to acquire large quantities of them. This is important because it could allow the PLA to exploit simple arithmetic in overcoming U.S. and allied missile defense systems. That is, the PLA could launch enough cruise missiles to simply overwhelm existing missile defense systems. Indeed, the report states Beijing believes that cruise missiles possess a 9:1 cost advantage over defenses against them. Thus, the PLA might exploit a quantity over quality approach, the exact opposite of the kind of force structure the U.S. military has outlined for its future. “Employed in salvos, perhaps in tandem with ballistic missiles, cruise missiles could saturate defenses with large numbers of missiles arriving at a specific target in a short time,” the report notes.

On September 10, China’s official television’s Xinwen Live News program discussed and described new work on China’s C802A and C602 anti-ship cruise missiles:

Senior Guan told us that the gross weight of this missile is only about one ton, but it can hit targets more than a hundred kilometers away and can quickly hit and sink or seriously damage 3,000-ton battleships. Does this small missile really have such great power?

[Guan Shiyi,missile expert from the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation] This is because the warhead has a characteristic, which is called armor-piercing explosion. It will pierce through first and then explode inside the warship. Therefore, its kill effect is very good.

There is a serious problem when adversaries develop technologies to neutralize the next generation of America’s Navy even before that generation is fully deployed. The United States has not lost a carrier in battle since World War II. Ignoring problems or convincing ourselves that the unthinkable will not happen, or believing that diplomacy can neutralize the vulnerability, is policy malpractice. Not only does it waste tens of billions of dollars but it puts the lives of American servicemen at risk and the security of America’s allies.

Perhaps it’s time to ask Secretary Hagel what he sees the second-order effects of losing uncontested naval supremacy might be, whether he sees uncontested naval supremacy as a worthwhile goal, and, if so—nothing can be taken for granted in the age of Obama—how the United States will maintain its naval supremacy in the face of Chinese anti-ship cruise and carrier killer missile developments.

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From Jayvee to Juggernaut: What Terrorists Learn from Obama’s Mistakes

The press has begun reminding the Obama administration that the president had earlier referred to terrorist groups like ISIS as petty wannabes: “a jayvee team.” Yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described them as an unprecedented threat and more worrisome, from a national-security perspective, than al-Qaeda. How did such a ragtag band of impostors become, in less than a year, the most imposing group out there? The answer is easy: they never were a jayvee team. To understand where the Obama administration went wrong, it’s instructive to revisit Obama’s full answer to the New Yorker’s David Remnick for that January story.

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The press has begun reminding the Obama administration that the president had earlier referred to terrorist groups like ISIS as petty wannabes: “a jayvee team.” Yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described them as an unprecedented threat and more worrisome, from a national-security perspective, than al-Qaeda. How did such a ragtag band of impostors become, in less than a year, the most imposing group out there? The answer is easy: they never were a jayvee team. To understand where the Obama administration went wrong, it’s instructive to revisit Obama’s full answer to the New Yorker’s David Remnick for that January story.

After making the “jayvee” comment–which Remnick called “an uncharacteristically flip analogy”–Obama expanded on his thinking. He said: “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

The major folly here was not, therefore, Obama underestimating one particular terrorist group or another. And it was not in the president’s naïve assumption that jihadists in particular hotspots don’t have global ambitions. Those are mistakes, surely. But the worst part was really in Obama’s complete lack of understanding in how individual terrorists operate.

Obama has always tried to draw lines between al-Qaeda and other groups because he wants to limit American action. But those lines were and are arbitrary. And because of that, Obama has tended to think of “new” terrorist groups as freshmen starting out at the bottom of the food chain. In fact, not only do they blur lines between groups and switch allegiances, but all terrorist groups benefit from the transnational architecture built over decades by Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and other trailblazers.

A Washington Post story from earlier this month offered a good example of this:

U.S. spy agencies have begun to see groups of fighters abandoning al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Africa to join the rival Islamist organization that has seized territory in Iraq and Syria and been targeted in American airstrikes, U.S. officials said.

The movements are seen by U.S. ­counterterrorism analysts as a worrisome indication of the expanding appeal of a group known as the Islamic State that has overwhelmed military forces in the region and may now see itself in direct conflict with the United States.

“Small groups from a number of al-Qaeda affiliates have defected to ISIS,” as the group is also known, said a U.S. official with access to classified intelligence assessments. “And this problem will probably become more acute as ISIS continues to rack up victories.”

The influx has strengthened an organization already regarded as a menacing force in the Middle East, one that has toppled a series of Iraqi cities by launching assaults so quickly and in so many directions that security forces caught in the group’s path have so far been unable to respond with anything but retreat.

Nobody defects to the jayvee team. And it’s been fascinating to watch the Obama administration come to terms with that realization, and adjust its rhetoric accordingly. Every time the administration is confronted with the fact that the global war on terror was not a made-up construct in a fit of warmongering pique but a logical reaction to the fluid, metastasizing threat of global jihadist groups, it struggles to explain its own meaningless distinctions.

So our enemy was al-Qaeda, not terrorism or terrorists more broadly. That, of course, was completely and recklessly false. So now that we have a non-al-Qaeda threat, how does the administration justify its uncompromising fury toward just one group? Here’s Hagel:

“They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They’re tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything that we’ve seen,” Hagel said, adding that “the sophistication of terrorism and ideology married with resources now poses a whole new dynamic and a new paradigm of threats to this country.”

But that’s not really true either. They’re sophisticated, ideological, militarily advanced, and “tremendously well-funded.” But does Hagel think that doesn’t describe any terror groups that preceded them? Would he not have said that about al-Qaeda? Would he not say that has been true of Hezbollah for decades now? You could even argue it described the Taliban once upon a time.

The point is not to split hairs. The point is that the administration made a grave and dangerous error in its attitude toward al-Qaeda, claiming the fight could be limited to card-carrying and dues-paying members of that one club. Obama is simply repeating that mistake again with ISIS. Who will be the next jayvee team that turns into a juggernaut? Whoever it is, they will almost certainly take Obama by surprise.

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Team Obama to Hillary: Be Careful What You Wish For

Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

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Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

It was perhaps inevitable that Obama loyalists would come forward and paint a picture of Hillary as fundamentally dishonest and engaged in self-aggrandizement in the pursuit of power. But it’s still somewhat surprising to see this all play out so far from the 2016 presidential election. As Jonathan wrote yesterday, Clinton’s interview signaled that she is already running her general-election campaign: with no serious lefty challenger, she has no need to play to the base on foreign affairs. Obama’s defenders have, however, cast her as her own rival by seeking to portray the presidential aspirant as she was during her time as secretary of state, not the new and improved “neocon” Hillary.

The Obama pushback has taken two forms. The more entertaining is David Axelrod’s shot across the bow this morning. In Clinton’s interview, she disparaged Obama’s foreign-policy mantra, telling Goldberg: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Today, Axelrod fired back, tweeting:

Just to clarify: “Don’t do stupid stuff” means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.

In other words, “don’t do stupid stuff” as an organizing principle is only necessary because people like Clinton insisted on doing stupid stuff. Of course, by this logic Obama is hardly in the clear: Democrats, including Obama’s Cabinet, were enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq war. Axelrod may be trying to insult Clinton’s intelligence, but he’s also reminding the public that, accordingly, the president has surrounded himself with dullards.

In addition to the enlightening Axelrod vs. Clinton “no, you’re a stupidhead” debate, White House officials also told the New York Times that when her opinion actually mattered in the formation of policy–and when it was offered behind closed doors–Clinton wasn’t exactly the bold outlier:

Still, when Mrs. Clinton says that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force” against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” the suggestion is that Mr. Obama’s refusal to arm the rebels might end up being a singular misjudgment. But at the time of the Obama administration’s internal debate over that decision, several officials said, Mrs. Clinton’s advocacy was far less thunderous: The United States had tried every diplomatic gambit with Syria, she said, and nothing else had worked, so why not try funneling weapons to the moderate rebels.

As Mrs. Clinton stakes out her own foreign policy positions in advance of a possible campaign for the White House, it is only natural that some of her statements will not be entirely in sync with her record as secretary of state, when she served at the pleasure of the president.

At the end of her tenure, for example, Mrs. Clinton wrote a memo to Mr. Obama recommending that the United States lift its half-century-old trade embargo against Cuba. It was not a position that she seriously advocated while at the State Department, officials said.

The Times article draws attention to the fact that Clinton was hardly a dissenting voice in the Obama administration. She sometimes disagreed, but equivocated when doing so. And that gets to the real significance of this row: both sides, Obama and Clinton, are aiming for the other’s Achilles’ heel.

Obama is vulnerable right now on the topic of former officials trying desperately to distance themselves from him. Bob Gates’s memoir caused a bit of a stir for criticizing his former boss before Obama was out of office. After leaving the State Department, Vali Nasr slammed Obama’s foreign-policy conduct. And now Clinton is doing the same. Gates and Clinton are particularly harmful to Obama, since they were both Cabinet members and are both vastly superior intellects to their successors, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry. Obama’s current Cabinet cannot match the credibility of his previous Cabinet, and it’s his previous Cabinet going public with their disapproval.

For Clinton, her weakness continues to be her Clintonian lack of principle and authenticity. Whatever their reasons for backing Clinton, it’s doubtful any of her supporters thinks Clinton believes anything. To Clinton there are no facts, only focus groups. She is yet another representation of the modern Democratic Party’s identity politics: it isn’t what she thinks that matters, but what she represents. The Obama team’s rebuttal of her attempts to throw the sitting president under the bus constitutes a warning to be careful what she wishes for. She may want to pivot to the general election already, but non-liberals might not be so enthused about her constant attempts at misdirection and reinvention.

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The Gaza War Has Changed the Way the World Talks About Hamas

Amid all the metrics commentators propose to determine “who won” Operation Protective Edge, one is staring everyone in the face: the international community’s attitude toward a postwar (if and when the war is over) Gaza. And on that score, Israel seems to have won a convincing victory. The Gaza war has changed the way the world is talking about Hamas and the Gaza Strip–and, despite all their tut-tutting at Jerusalem, they sound quite a bit like Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Amid all the metrics commentators propose to determine “who won” Operation Protective Edge, one is staring everyone in the face: the international community’s attitude toward a postwar (if and when the war is over) Gaza. And on that score, Israel seems to have won a convincing victory. The Gaza war has changed the way the world is talking about Hamas and the Gaza Strip–and, despite all their tut-tutting at Jerusalem, they sound quite a bit like Benjamin Netanyahu.

I wrote last week of the Netanyahu government’s informal proposal for a sort of “economic peace” for Gaza in return for its demilitarization. Despite its record of success, economic peace has never really been embraced by the international community–and when Netanyahu proposes it, it’s usually met with anger and derision. But not this time. This time Hamas seems to have overplayed its hand.

It’s possible that this is Hamas being a victim of its own morbid “success” with regard to the propaganda war. That is, maybe the international community is so torn up by the violence in Gaza that they want more than ever to prevent its recurrence. And no matter how often they try to blame Israel, they seem to understand that there’s only one way to prevent future bloodshed: demilitarize, at least to a significant degree, the Gaza Strip.

Take, for example, the Obama administration. While President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and their staffers and advisors have been intent on criticizing Israel in public and in harsh terms, the president’s loyal defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, reportedly spoke as though he took the need to disarm Hamas for granted last week. And it’s even more significant to hear of European leaders joining that bandwagon. As Foreign Policy reported last night:

Major European powers have outlined a detailed plan for a European-backed U.N. mission to monitor the lifting of an Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip and the dismantling of Hamas’s military tunnel network and rocket arsenals, according to a copy of the plan obtained by Foreign Policy.

The European initiative aims to reinforce wide-ranging cease-fire talks underway in Cairo. The Europeans are hoping to take advantage of this week’s 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire to cobble a more durable plan addressing underlying issues that could reignite violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

It remains unclear whether the European plan has the support of Hamas, Israel, or the United States. It does, however, include several elements the Obama administration believes are essential, including the need to ease Gazans’ plight, strengthen the role of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and ensure the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip.

The plan — described in a so-called non-paper titled “Gaza: Supporting a Sustainable Ceasefire” — envisions the creation of a U.N.-mandated “monitoring and verification” mission, possibly drawing peacekeepers from the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), which has monitored a series of Israeli-Arab truces in the region since the late 1940s. The mission “should cover military and security aspects, such as the dismantling of tunnels between Gaza and Israel, and the lifting of restrictions on movement and access,” according to the document. “It could have a role in monitoring imports of construction and dual use materials allowed in the Gaza Strip, and the re-introduction of the Palestinian Authority.”

The plan’s existence is in many ways more important than its details, for it shows Europe to be embracing Netanyahu’s idea for an economic peace for Gaza. Removing the import and export restrictions (or most of them) in return for real demilitarization would be an obvious win for everyone–except Hamas. In fact, it would give a major boost to the peace process overall, because it would discredit armed “resistance” as an effective method to win Palestinians their autonomy.

It would be quite a turnaround if Gaza somehow became the prime example of peaceful state building with the international community’s help. It’s also not an easy task, to say the least. But the fact that even Europe is on board, and expects to get the UN to agree to such a plan, shows that the principle of disarming Hamas and demilitarizing the Gaza Strip has gone mainstream.

Whether it happens is another question, of course, and no one should get their hopes up, especially while Hamas is breaking even temporary ceasefires. Additionally, the UN’s record in policing such zones of conflict, especially in the Middle East, is not cause for optimism. But talk of Hamas “winning” this war is made all the more ridiculous when the topic of conversation in the capitals of the Middle East and throughout the West is how to permanently disarm Hamas and dismantle any infrastructure they can use against Israel.

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What’s Chuck Hagel’s Problem with Germany?

Once upon a time, then-senator and Democratic nominee for president Barack Obama came to Germany to seek his coronation as an internationalist after what he—and many Germans—considered the dark years of Bush unilateralism.

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Once upon a time, then-senator and Democratic nominee for president Barack Obama came to Germany to seek his coronation as an internationalist after what he—and many Germans—considered the dark years of Bush unilateralism.

Fast-forward six years, and relations between Washington and Berlin have reached their post-World War II nadir. German Chancellor Angela Merkel resents greatly revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency spied on her personal telephone. To be fair, that is not President Obama’s fault, but a practice which precedes him. And, also to be fair, the Germans hardly have their noses clean when it comes to spying. If that episode had only just begun to heal, new revelations of American spying in Germany threaten to re-open the scar.

It could get worse. If the Germans chose to dig deeper, they might be surprised at the training which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel requires of all Defense Department employees who visit or even transit Germany. Hagel, in his wisdom, mandates that all Defense Department employees undergo an extensive, if often irrelevant, nine-hour “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE)” training course to receive online instruction on how to evade hostile locals and their police forces and administer creative first aid remedies to avoid having to go to local hospitals or even pharmacies. Now, those in the military who have had to do the real course rather than the online, computer version understand what a joke it is to believe you can learn how to deal with captivity, torture, and extreme duress from a typical Pentagon online training unit, especially one that most computers ironically can’t handle because of the extensive bandwidth required. Taking online SERE training is sort of like taking weaponry training with a water pistol. But, Hagel nonetheless requires it. Perhaps he wants his employees to be able to learn how to forage while in Germany because he does not trust the sandwich shops at the Frankfurt Airport.

The reason why Hagel continues to require such training which he admittedly inherited from his predecessors is probably poor management, but that’s no excuse for the defense secretary seemingly not recognizing that World War II is over and that there is no reason why he and the bureaucracy over which he presides should treat Germany, Canada, Norway, and Japan in the same manner as Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Nigeria. Still, given what the Defense Department bureaucracy requires ahead of travel to Germany, it should come as no surprise should relations between Berlin and Washington fall further. Perhaps, though, simply replacing mindless training with a dose of common sense could do both relations and Pentagon productivity some good.

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Hagel’s Unconvincing Spin

If there is one good aspect of the dismaying advance of Islamist extremists in Iraq from the Obama administration’s standpoint, it is that these events are distracting attention from the continuing controversy over the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap.

More embarrassing stories continue to emerge. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, reports that the U.S. intelligence community assessed that four out of the five released Taliban were likely to return to the fight and that two of them would assume senior positions. Foreign Policy, meanwhile, reports that the two senior U.S. military commanders in the region–General Joe Dunford in Kabul and General Lloyd Austin at Central Command–were not informed of the deal beforehand (although they knew about the ongoing negotiations).

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If there is one good aspect of the dismaying advance of Islamist extremists in Iraq from the Obama administration’s standpoint, it is that these events are distracting attention from the continuing controversy over the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap.

More embarrassing stories continue to emerge. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, reports that the U.S. intelligence community assessed that four out of the five released Taliban were likely to return to the fight and that two of them would assume senior positions. Foreign Policy, meanwhile, reports that the two senior U.S. military commanders in the region–General Joe Dunford in Kabul and General Lloyd Austin at Central Command–were not informed of the deal beforehand (although they knew about the ongoing negotiations).

Little wonder that senior administration officials who have trooped to Capitol Hill for briefings have not managed to satisfy members’ concerns. The latest to try is Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel who told the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. had not actually negotiated with terrorists. Why not? Because Bergdahl was being held by the Haqqani Network and the U.S. instead talked with the Taliban through the good offices of Qatari officials. As one Republican congressman said, “These responses are very, very tortuous.”

But this damage control is also being overshadowed by the ongoing disaster in Iraq. Before long the administration will be able to say that Bergdahl is “old news” and thus duck further inquiries. Unfortunately from the standpoint of the rest of the world, the Bergdahl and Iraq stories are merging to create an appearance of American weakness in dealing with al-Qaeda and its ilk.

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Chuck Hagel’s Desperate Defense

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, during a press conference yesterday, said that it’s “unfair” to judge Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl before all the facts are out and he gets a chance to tell his story.

“Until we get the facts, until we have … a review of all the circumstance,” Mr. Hagel said, “it’s not in the interest of anyone, and certainly I think a bit unfair to Sgt. Bergdahl’s family and to him to presume anything.”

“We don’t do that in the United States,” he continued. “We rely on facts.”

Just for the record: It was the Obama administration, in the person of National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who on Sunday said that Sgt. Bergdahl served his nation with “honor and distinction.” She said this despite the Obama administration having enough facts to know that there was a high probability that Bergdahl was a deserter. So why did Team Obama judge Bergdahl to be a hero (a) before a review of all the circumstances and (b) despite the available evidence? Why are they the ones who presumed something – and presumed something that very much looks to be wrong?
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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, during a press conference yesterday, said that it’s “unfair” to judge Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl before all the facts are out and he gets a chance to tell his story.

“Until we get the facts, until we have … a review of all the circumstance,” Mr. Hagel said, “it’s not in the interest of anyone, and certainly I think a bit unfair to Sgt. Bergdahl’s family and to him to presume anything.”

“We don’t do that in the United States,” he continued. “We rely on facts.”

Just for the record: It was the Obama administration, in the person of National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who on Sunday said that Sgt. Bergdahl served his nation with “honor and distinction.” She said this despite the Obama administration having enough facts to know that there was a high probability that Bergdahl was a deserter. So why did Team Obama judge Bergdahl to be a hero (a) before a review of all the circumstances and (b) despite the available evidence? Why are they the ones who presumed something – and presumed something that very much looks to be wrong?

As for relying on the facts, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey writes 

All the details of how Bergdahl left his unit may have to be teased out in the setting of a court martial, but it has long been known that he was a malcontent who had sent his belongings home well before the day in June 2009 when he left his unit in Afghanistan, that he wrote that the army he served in was a “joke” and that he was ashamed to be an American. Was the president perhaps not aware that desertion is an act viewed with such seriousness under the Uniform Code of Military Justice that in wartime it can carry the death penalty?

Secretary Hagel doesn’t want the rest of us to draw reasonable (if not fully final) judgments based on the empirical evidence we have – including the accounts of many soldiers who served with Bergdahl – for only one reason: To protect the president from the withering criticism he has earned.

To Mr. Hagel I would simply say we don’t need lectures about morality, patriotism, honor, or what it means to uphold American principles from this administration on any matter, and certainly not on this matter. Mr. Obama and his aides once again attempted to deceive us – in this instance turning a likely deserter who may well have cost the lives of his fellow soldiers into an American hero – and in so doing turned a complicated decision into a disgraceful display.  

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Can the White House Be Trusted on Iran Deal?

President Obama’s decision to release five senior Taliban prisoners in exchange for a captive American soldier who, according to numerous media reports, was also a deserter was political malpractice. The terrorists released were not simply Taliban, but rather the Taliban leadership who helped forge the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Chuck Hagel both denied that the deal was equivalent to negotiating with terrorists and also denied that releasing such high-value terrorists in exchange for a traitor would incentivize further terrorism.

Hagel is either being disingenuous or intellectually incompetent. That Obama violated the law with the release is simply icing on the cake of poor White House judgment. National Security Advisor Susan Rice again rushed to appear on Sunday talk shows for which she was unprepared and in which she was not truthful when characterizing Bowe Bergdahl’s service. The Taliban are rightly celebrating their victory, while Obama and some of his senior aides appear genuinely surprised at the uproar which their deal has sparked.

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President Obama’s decision to release five senior Taliban prisoners in exchange for a captive American soldier who, according to numerous media reports, was also a deserter was political malpractice. The terrorists released were not simply Taliban, but rather the Taliban leadership who helped forge the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Chuck Hagel both denied that the deal was equivalent to negotiating with terrorists and also denied that releasing such high-value terrorists in exchange for a traitor would incentivize further terrorism.

Hagel is either being disingenuous or intellectually incompetent. That Obama violated the law with the release is simply icing on the cake of poor White House judgment. National Security Advisor Susan Rice again rushed to appear on Sunday talk shows for which she was unprepared and in which she was not truthful when characterizing Bowe Bergdahl’s service. The Taliban are rightly celebrating their victory, while Obama and some of his senior aides appear genuinely surprised at the uproar which their deal has sparked.

Given the detachment of the White House from reality, perhaps it’s time now to double down on the demand that the White House not be trusted to make a deal with Iran without Congress carefully vetting the terms of that deal. The United States and regional states will have to live with whatever Obama’s negotiators decide, but Obama’s team has clearly demonstrated that they have little sense of strategic consequences. Perhaps if there’s any lesson that can be learned from the Bergdahl debacle, it can be that it provides warning that Obama left to his own devices uses secrecy to shield himself from criticism, but is prone to damaging American credibility. What’s at stake with Iran’s nuclear program is simply too important to defer to Obama’s judgment alone.

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What Would a Military DREAM Act Mean?

One of the top ideas floating around the orbit of immigration reform is to allow a faster path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, “undocumented residents,” or whatever the latest politically correct term is, if they join and serve in the U.S. military. In effect, this means opening the U.S. military to illegal aliens.

Now, there is a long history of non-Americans joining the U.S. military. Filipinos joined the U.S. Navy in significant numbers from the first years of the 20th century through World War II and, indeed, even after the Philippines’ 1947 independence. Non-citizens who were legal residents have served honorably in the U.S. military up to and during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Many still do, and they deserve the quicker path to citizenship that their service enables. 

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One of the top ideas floating around the orbit of immigration reform is to allow a faster path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, “undocumented residents,” or whatever the latest politically correct term is, if they join and serve in the U.S. military. In effect, this means opening the U.S. military to illegal aliens.

Now, there is a long history of non-Americans joining the U.S. military. Filipinos joined the U.S. Navy in significant numbers from the first years of the 20th century through World War II and, indeed, even after the Philippines’ 1947 independence. Non-citizens who were legal residents have served honorably in the U.S. military up to and during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Many still do, and they deserve the quicker path to citizenship that their service enables. 

That does not mean that President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and the various Democratic and Republican representatives and senators who are pushing immigration reform should endorse the idea of illegal or undocumented aliens serving in the U.S. military. The reason is simple: It creates a precedent by which the U.S. military welcomes lawbreakers. Illegal aliens may find their plight unfair and unjust, but they do know their actions violate U.S. law. Just as the military has upheld physical standards in its recruitment, it has also weeded out those who knowingly do not abide by the law. Certainly, there are waivers for certain crimes: Some civil offences, non-traffic-related crimes, and misdemeanors might be forgiven. This is done on an individual, case-by-case basis. To open the doors of the U.S. military to illegal aliens, however, not only is a slap in the face of those who have respected U.S. law, but also raises questions as to the motive of service. Regardless, the question both Democrats and Republicans should ask is more basic than whether there should be a military equivalent of the DREAM Act. Instead, the question at hand is whether the U.S. military should any longer use respect for the law as a selection criteria.

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Obama’s Crisis of Competence

Earlier in the week I wrote about a Defense Department nominee that Republicans were questioning over whether the administration knew of Russian treaty violations while it was pushing the Senate to ratify New START. But that nominee, Brian McKeon, turned out not to have been the subject of controversy at the ensuing committee hearing. Instead, it was two of his fellow nominees who clashed with John McCain and subsequently had their nominations put on hold.

The fireworks between McCain and Bob Work, nominated to be deputy defense secretary, and Christine Wormuth, nominated to be under secretary for defense policy, were in some sense inevitable. McCain was already losing patience with the constant stream of Obama nominees who fell into one of two categories: either they were ambassadorial posts given to staggeringly uninformed big-money donors or they were–like Work and Wormuth, and higher-ranking nominees before them such as Chuck Hagel–given important defense policy-related nominations but struggled to answer questions about that subject.

The Washington Times recounts this particular committee hearing, in which the two apparently “failed to provide adequate responses to questions” McCain asked them:

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Earlier in the week I wrote about a Defense Department nominee that Republicans were questioning over whether the administration knew of Russian treaty violations while it was pushing the Senate to ratify New START. But that nominee, Brian McKeon, turned out not to have been the subject of controversy at the ensuing committee hearing. Instead, it was two of his fellow nominees who clashed with John McCain and subsequently had their nominations put on hold.

The fireworks between McCain and Bob Work, nominated to be deputy defense secretary, and Christine Wormuth, nominated to be under secretary for defense policy, were in some sense inevitable. McCain was already losing patience with the constant stream of Obama nominees who fell into one of two categories: either they were ambassadorial posts given to staggeringly uninformed big-money donors or they were–like Work and Wormuth, and higher-ranking nominees before them such as Chuck Hagel–given important defense policy-related nominations but struggled to answer questions about that subject.

The Washington Times recounts this particular committee hearing, in which the two apparently “failed to provide adequate responses to questions” McCain asked them:

At one point, Mr. McCain focused his attention Mr. Work’s lack of familiarity with a critical 2013 government report that outlined cost issues associated with the Littoral Combat Ship.

Recent years have seen the ship experience a series of cost overruns, and Mr. McCain expressed shock when Mr. Work indicated that he had not seen the report.

The Senator then questioned Mr. Work’s qualifications to be Deputy Defense Secretary. “You haven’t read it? I’m stunned that you haven’t,” Mr. McCain scoffed.

Mr. McCain’s frustration toward Ms. Wormuth stemmed from a separate exchange in which the senator accused her of ducking his request for additional information on al Qaeda.

The confirmation hearing for Hagel was an unmitigated disaster, but the concern appears to be that Hagel was only the beginning. McCain has obvious disagreements with the president on policy, but the recent global emergencies have cast doubt on the process that leads to policy in this administration. The confused, ad hoc nature of crisis response in the Obama White House makes it all the more important that Hagel at least have competent, knowledgeable employees he can lean on. Someone’s got to steer the ship, in other words.

On the other side of this nominating circus are the ambassadors. I wrote here about the Obama donor tapped to be ambassador to Norway who didn’t know anything about Norway and the Hungarian ambassador who couldn’t name America’s strategic interests in Hungary, who were joined in their ranks by the ambassador to Argentina who had never been to Argentina (but what a perfect reason to visit!).

And on that issue, McCain wasn’t the only one fed up. Olivier Knox reported earlier this week that the American Foreign Service Association, which represents some 31,000 current and former diplomats, was so alarmed by President Obama’s envoy fire sale that they went so far as to write an embarrassingly elementary how-to guide for Obama:

A good nominee ideally “has experience in or with the host country or other suitable international experience, and has knowledge of the host country culture and language or of other foreign cultures or languages,” AFSA said in its six-page report.

“The actions and words of an ambassador have consequences for U.S. national security and interests far beyond the individual country or organization to which he or she is accredited,” AFSA said. “It is essential, therefore, that ambassadors chosen to represent the president and lead our diplomatic missions possess the attributes, experience and skills to do so successfully.”

The report landed at a time when a handful of Obama’s nominees — some of them seemingly picked for no reason other than to reward them for scooping up vast piles of re-election campaign cash — have raised eyebrows in Congress.

AFSA tried to be as–forgive me–diplomatic as possible, by claiming they weren’t writing this guide for Obama personally, just for anyone who happens to be president and who may be tempted to auction off diplomatic postings. McCain may have seemed to lose his temper, but this instruction manual is far more insulting: its language is downright condescending.

It’s also more evidence that the Chuck Hagels aren’t exceptions; they’re just high-profile enough to garner the publicity. When the light is shined on other nominees, it’s clear this White House neither takes foreign affairs especially seriously nor has the presence of mind to pretend it does.

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Defense Budget Incoherence

My previous item on the defense budget focused on the Draconian cuts being inflicted on the army. But the army is hardly alone in feeling the pain. To a greater or lesser degree, all of the services are enduring cuts that will impair their ability to carry out their assigned missions–and the pain will get even worse if the sequester is not permanently repealed.

Today Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined the tough choices he is making in the new budget. In addition to cutting the army’s end-strength from 520,000 active-duty personnel today to fewer than 450,000 (a level not seen since 1940), he is proposing to:

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My previous item on the defense budget focused on the Draconian cuts being inflicted on the army. But the army is hardly alone in feeling the pain. To a greater or lesser degree, all of the services are enduring cuts that will impair their ability to carry out their assigned missions–and the pain will get even worse if the sequester is not permanently repealed.

Today Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined the tough choices he is making in the new budget. In addition to cutting the army’s end-strength from 520,000 active-duty personnel today to fewer than 450,000 (a level not seen since 1940), he is proposing to:

* Eliminate the A-10 Warthog, the best ground-support aircraft in the Air Force’s inventory, and one whose capabilities will be sorely missed by hard-pressed ground troops under fire.

* Take half of the Navy’s cruiser fleet–11 cruisers–out of service.

* Tenuously maintain a commitment to maintaining 11 aircraft carriers while noting that the funds to retrofit the USS George Washington may not be forthcoming in future years, so the likelihood is that the Navy will shrink to 10 carriers–even though current operating requirements call for 15.

* Cut the Marine Corps from 190,000 to 182,000 Marines.

Keep in mind, that’s a best-case scenario. Hagel also outlined what would happen if sequestration remains in effect after 2015–spelling out for the first time the dire consequences of even greater cuts. What are those consequences?

* “The Air Force would have to retire 80 more aircraft, including the entire KC-10 tanker fleet and the Global Hawk Block 40 fleet, as well as slow down purchases of the Joint Strike Fighter – resulting in 24 fewer F-35s purchased through Fiscal Year 2019 – and sustain ten fewer Predator and Reaper 24-hour combat air patrols. The Air Force would also have to take deep cuts to flying hours, which would prevent a return to adequate readiness levels.”

* “The active-duty Army would have to draw down to an end strength of 420,000 soldiers.”

* “Six additional ships would have to be laid up, and we would have to slow the rate at which we buy destroyers. The net result of sequestration-level cuts would be ten fewer large surface combatant ships in the Navy’s operational inventory by 2023. Under sequestration spending levels, the Navy would also halt procurement of the carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter for two years.”

* “The Marines would have to shrink further to 175,000.”

In short, bad as the current budget is, it could get a whole lot worse.

I don’t blame Hagel, who is doing the best with the bad hand he has been dealt. I do blame President Obama and the bipartisan leadership of Congress who have refused to make hard choices on entitlement programs–the real cause of our fiscal woes–and instead are taking the “easy” way out, by gutting our defense capabilities.

Does any of this matter? You bet it does.

I hear many doves suggesting that we don’t face major threats to our security today and can afford to cut defense spending even more. We’ve heard that before–and history, as I have noted, has always shown the folly of such Panglossian thinking.

In fact the world is a more chaotic place than ever and we face the need to respond to a multiplicity of threats, from pirates and terrorists and narco-traffickers to rogue states like Iran and North Korea to potential great power rivals such as China and Russia to failed states such as Yemen and Syria. And not only do we have to be able to project power in traditional ways, but we also have to be able to protect new domains such as outer space and cyberspace.

Certainly the operating tempo for the U.S. military remains as high as ever. There is no decrease in the number of missions the men and women in uniform must carry out–or the number of contingencies they must prepare for. All that’s being cut are the resources they need to get the job done. Only in Washington does this looming imbalance between ends and means add up to a coherent strategic vision.

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How China Undercuts International Order in East Asia

Since Beijing established its controversial air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over a large part of the East China Sea last November, the Obama administration has done everything possible to avoid a political confrontation. While U.S. military jets are reported to have ignored the ADIZ and continued regular flights, Vice President Biden very conspicuously refused during his December visit to Beijing to demand that China roll back the zone. Moreover, the State Department advised U.S. civilian airliners to comply with Beijing’s demands. Washington’s actions are part of a larger trend of failing to uphold international order in East Asia.

This week, America’s top commander in the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, told reporters that the Chinese military has been “acting professionally” in the skies near the disputed Senkaku Islands. Unfortunately, news reports provided little clarity as to just what the Chinese are doing, professionally or otherwise, and where and how often U.S. jets are flying. This is a problem because the Obama administration has consistently refused to explain just why China’s particular ADIZ both conflicts with international law and is highly destabilizing.

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Since Beijing established its controversial air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over a large part of the East China Sea last November, the Obama administration has done everything possible to avoid a political confrontation. While U.S. military jets are reported to have ignored the ADIZ and continued regular flights, Vice President Biden very conspicuously refused during his December visit to Beijing to demand that China roll back the zone. Moreover, the State Department advised U.S. civilian airliners to comply with Beijing’s demands. Washington’s actions are part of a larger trend of failing to uphold international order in East Asia.

This week, America’s top commander in the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, told reporters that the Chinese military has been “acting professionally” in the skies near the disputed Senkaku Islands. Unfortunately, news reports provided little clarity as to just what the Chinese are doing, professionally or otherwise, and where and how often U.S. jets are flying. This is a problem because the Obama administration has consistently refused to explain just why China’s particular ADIZ both conflicts with international law and is highly destabilizing.

First, China’s ADIZ is ostensibly applied to both civilian and military flights for purposes of identification, filing of flight plans, and the like. All other ADIZ’s, such as those of the United States, apply only to civilian flights, and only in the case that there is a valid concern that they are acting in a threatening manner towards U.S. territorial airspace. As pointed out by James Kraska, formerly of the U.S. Naval War College, among others, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is a signatory, allows “freedom of overflight” on the high seas, including through exclusive economic zones (EEZ).

Beijing is thus trying to change the status quo by warping the commonly accepted definition of an ADIZ. The U.S. has never fully explained that only China is attempting to control the activities of both civilian and foreign military aircraft by expanding the scope of an air defense zone. This is a prime example of what analysts mean when they talk about international “norms” and the danger to them of revisionist states like China.

Second, China’s ADIZ conflicts with the 1947 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, which states that interception of civilian aircraft over sovereign territory is permissible only if “reasonable grounds” exist to assume that such flight was not innocent, and that states “must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight.”

Yet in announcing its ADIZ, Beijing said that “emergency defensive measures” would be taken against any aircraft that did not comply with its demands for identification in the international airspace that happened to fall within the ADIZ, regardless of the innocence of the flight. Beijing is thus both conflating sovereign and international airspace and violating the spirit of international law by pre-justifying the use of force. A State Department full of lawyers might have enjoyed pounding this point home, but little if anything has been said about it.

In addition, Beijing is ignoring the fact that all airspace is already divided into “Flight Identification Regions” for the management of civilian flights and is agreed to through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Beijing’s demand that innocent civilian airliners provide information when traveling through its ADIZ violates air traffic practice established more than 50 years ago. Again, Washington has been silent on this point.

Third, Washington should have repeatedly pointed out that only China has established an ADIZ that overlaps with those of other countries. Indeed, a primary reason for China’s zone is to extend its ownership claims over the contested Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan. Thus, Beijing set up its ADIZ over Japan’s own zone, which was established decades ago. In addition, China overlapped territory claimed by South Korea. In response, Seoul also extended its ADIZ, so that the East China Sea now has three overlapping air defense zones.

The Obama administration has refused to provide the specifics about how destabilizing this is. Instead, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel merely lamented that what the U.S. was most concerned about was that China established its ADIZ in a precipitous manner without preconsultation. While U.S. military leaders have talked about the potential for accidental confrontation, the real dangers are much broader. In refusing to defend customary practice, international law, and common sense, the administration is playing its part in undermining all of them. It is a steep price to pay for not wanting to antagonize an already antagonistic competitor.

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Yaalon’s Not Alone

Moshe Yaalon’s comments about John Kerry appear to have been something of a Kinsleyan gaffe, when a politician is caught telling the truth. The accuracy of the comments may explain the swift and pained How dare you response from Foggy Bottom, and Yaalon declined to immediately deny or disavow the comments, instead preferring to apologize for their offense.

Not much attention has been paid to why Yaalon made the comments, though. Israeli officials do sometimes forget the delicate egos of some Western politicians, so it can perhaps be written off as sabra prickliness. But surely Yaalon knows better. If the Israeli administration–this being the most English-proficient one in memory–had concerns, they could have spelled them out in private. Why cause a stir? Shmuel Rosner floats one rather convincing explanation:

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Moshe Yaalon’s comments about John Kerry appear to have been something of a Kinsleyan gaffe, when a politician is caught telling the truth. The accuracy of the comments may explain the swift and pained How dare you response from Foggy Bottom, and Yaalon declined to immediately deny or disavow the comments, instead preferring to apologize for their offense.

Not much attention has been paid to why Yaalon made the comments, though. Israeli officials do sometimes forget the delicate egos of some Western politicians, so it can perhaps be written off as sabra prickliness. But surely Yaalon knows better. If the Israeli administration–this being the most English-proficient one in memory–had concerns, they could have spelled them out in private. Why cause a stir? Shmuel Rosner floats one rather convincing explanation:

It is funny how both left and right use “messianic” as the ultimate insult. But even if Defense Minister Yaalon should not have publically stated that State Secretary Kerry is “obsessive and messianic”, it doesn’t mean he is not right in making this assessment. David Horovitz aptly summed it up in one sentence: “Ya’alon’s been thoroughly dumb. But he’s not entirely wrong”. In fact, a majority of Israelis would say that he is right. And while the Americans have been rushing to get some diplomatic mileage out of Yaalon’s mistake – to “put Israel in its place, perhaps to put it on the defensive as Kerry comes back to continue his diplomatic efforts”, as Herb Keinon remarks – one would hope that this fact was not lost on them. One would hope that they realized that their initiative hardly impresses the Israeli public and its leadership. In other words, if you want to put a positive spin on Yaalon’s carelessness, try this: He was a messenger that had to be sacrificed in order to send a clear message of dissent to the American mediator, a message that no polite disagreement behind closed doors can convey.

The public fracas was the only way to get the message across. The harsh reaction from the U.S. suggests why: this administration doesn’t listen. Washington was shocked by comments that shouldn’t have surprised them in the least, but they famously pay no attention to the concerns of others.

I wrote about this in November, on the heels of Kerry’s Iran deal. The secretary of state was surprised by virtually everything–French objections, Israeli protestations, Saudi warnings, even Iranian declarations–that everyone else had been hearing for weeks, if not longer. Kerry’s single-minded quest for a deal with Iran had led him to stick his fingers in his ears, which had the practical effect of our secretary of state being the last to know much of the relevant information.

And so it’s important to note that whatever the wisdom of his comments, Yaalon’s not alone, even among close allies. The Daily Beast talks to Hew Strachan, the British military historian and defense advisor, and gets a brutal judgment of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and sense of strategy:

Sir Hew Strachan, an advisor to the Chief of the Defense Staff, told The Daily Beast that the United States and Britain were guilty of total strategic failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Obama’s attempts to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels “has left them in a far worse position than they were before.”

The extraordinary critique by a leading advisor to the United States’ closest military ally comes days after Obama was undermined by the former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who questioned the President’s foreign policy decisions and claimed he was deeply suspicious of the military.

Strachan, a current member of the Chief of the Defense Staff’s Strategic Advisory Panel, cited the “crazy” handling of the Syrian crisis as the most egregious example of a fundamental collapse in military planning that began in the aftermath of 9/11. “If anything it’s gone backwards instead of forwards, Obama seems to be almost chronically incapable of doing this. Bush may have had totally fanciful political objectives in terms of trying to fight a global War on Terror, which was inherently astrategic, but at least he had a clear sense of what he wanted to do in the world. Obama has no sense of what he wants to do in the world,” he said.

In this sense John Kerry is a symptom of the underlying problem: personnel is policy, especially when it comes to the leader of the free world. There were talented, experienced, and well-respected options for Obama’s top Cabinet posts, so it threw many for a loop when he picked Kerry and Chuck Hagel at State and Defense. But Obama doesn’t appreciate constructive criticism or robust debate. Obama, the Washington Post explained a year ago, “spent the last four years immersed in all of this stuff and can now make decisions based on his own observations not the idea that you always just need to get the ‘best person for the job’.”

This lack of talent was deliberate, and our allies noticed. They then tried to mitigate the damage by raising their concerns behind closed doors. They were ignored, of course. As a last resort, they have taken to voicing their alarm aloud. It’s not always constructive or diplomatic. But the administration would be mistaken to assume that Yaalon is an outlier.

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The Dud at DOD: Hagel Proves Critics Right

The biggest fight of the first two months of Barack Obama’s second term was his determination to get his man at Defense. Former Senator Chuck Hagel had few credentials for the job other than being a Vietnam War hero and a defender of the rights of veterans. He made unforced errors such as saying he believed in tolerating a nuclear Iran and backtracked unconvincingly from past statements in which he asserted that a “Jewish lobby” was manipulating U.S. foreign policy. These were bad enough, but even Democrats who felt obligated to give the president his choice for a key Cabinet post were dismayed at the clueless manner with which the Nebraska Republican who had endorsed Obama in 2008 and 2012 approached his confirmation hearings. He looked lost in the glare of public scrutiny and his performance when faced with tough questions did not inspire much confidence in his ability to lead America’s military or deal with the political labyrinth that anyone heading up the mammoth Department of Defense must navigate. But Obama stuck with his man and with enough Republicans refusing to filibuster the nomination, Hagel was confirmed. But fast forward a little more than nine months later and the scuttlebutt emanating from the White House appears to confirm just about everything the secretary’s critics had been saying all along.

This barely suppressed buyer’s remorse about Hagel is the conceit of a new Politico Magazine story about the DOD head. The piece aptly refers to him as the secretary who’s been on defense virtually his entire tenure as the same deer-in-the-headlights looks that astounded senators during the confirmation process are now causing concern in the West Wing. The “low energy” secretary has underwhelmed Washington, prompted criticism from both sides of the aisle and is widely seen as a political cipher who is unable to stand up to the generals inside the Pentagon or for the defense establishment in the political infighting that is part of any administration. While he has shown some signs of trying to break out of that uninspired mold recently, the enduring image of him sitting mutely next to Secretary of State John Kerry during the Syria hearings in August tells you all you need to know about what a dud he has been. Virtually every disparaging remark voiced by anonymous administration staffers echoes the points made by those who argued last winter that he had no business in the Cabinet.

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The biggest fight of the first two months of Barack Obama’s second term was his determination to get his man at Defense. Former Senator Chuck Hagel had few credentials for the job other than being a Vietnam War hero and a defender of the rights of veterans. He made unforced errors such as saying he believed in tolerating a nuclear Iran and backtracked unconvincingly from past statements in which he asserted that a “Jewish lobby” was manipulating U.S. foreign policy. These were bad enough, but even Democrats who felt obligated to give the president his choice for a key Cabinet post were dismayed at the clueless manner with which the Nebraska Republican who had endorsed Obama in 2008 and 2012 approached his confirmation hearings. He looked lost in the glare of public scrutiny and his performance when faced with tough questions did not inspire much confidence in his ability to lead America’s military or deal with the political labyrinth that anyone heading up the mammoth Department of Defense must navigate. But Obama stuck with his man and with enough Republicans refusing to filibuster the nomination, Hagel was confirmed. But fast forward a little more than nine months later and the scuttlebutt emanating from the White House appears to confirm just about everything the secretary’s critics had been saying all along.

This barely suppressed buyer’s remorse about Hagel is the conceit of a new Politico Magazine story about the DOD head. The piece aptly refers to him as the secretary who’s been on defense virtually his entire tenure as the same deer-in-the-headlights looks that astounded senators during the confirmation process are now causing concern in the West Wing. The “low energy” secretary has underwhelmed Washington, prompted criticism from both sides of the aisle and is widely seen as a political cipher who is unable to stand up to the generals inside the Pentagon or for the defense establishment in the political infighting that is part of any administration. While he has shown some signs of trying to break out of that uninspired mold recently, the enduring image of him sitting mutely next to Secretary of State John Kerry during the Syria hearings in August tells you all you need to know about what a dud he has been. Virtually every disparaging remark voiced by anonymous administration staffers echoes the points made by those who argued last winter that he had no business in the Cabinet.

That Hagel would be a “paper tiger”—as the headline of the Politico piece calls him—comes as no surprise. While his military service is admirable, it takes more than a war record to run an enterprise as vast as the DOD. Moreover, even when pleading his case before the Senate, he didn’t really promise us anything different. At the time, even his defenders were puzzled by his argument that he would not be the person setting policy but just a manager implementing the president’s wishes. But, with rare exceptions, that’s exactly what he has been. On all the crucial issues involving the use of the military, he hasn’t been MIA, keeping quiet even when his boss in the Oval Office wished him to speak up, such as at the hearing about putative plans for striking Syria. The president chose him in part because he shared Hagel’s “realist” views about appeasing Iran and downgrading the alliance with Israel. But he was primarily interested in having the brash former enlisted man do his bidding when it came to downsizing the defense establishment and putting generals in their place. Yet he has largely failed to do that and, in the first stirrings of independence, seems more intent on backing up the generals than in shutting them up.

Even on issues that should have been political slam-dunks for him, Hagel has faltered. Politico describes him as serving as Obama’s “human shield” on the increasingly important question of sexual assaults in the military. Rather than going along with prominent Democrats like New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has made this her signature issue, Hagel has backed up the brass when it comes to removing investigations from the normal military chain of command, prompting her to describe him as neither showing leadership nor living up to his promises.

Though he has been of little use in helping to bridge the gap between the parties on the budget standoff, Hagel is right when he protests about the way the sequester has negatively impacted readiness and overall the ability of the military to do its job or defend the nation. And, if Politico’s sources are to be believed, he may have been a rare voice of sanity in the administration on Egypt policy and may have slightly ameliorated the damage done by both Obama and Kerry for their embrace of the deposed Muslim Brotherhood government. But his overall performance has been lackluster at best. Obama was told that Hagel was not ready for the job and those warnings have proven accurate.

In one sense, Hagel is a classic example of the way second-term presidents wind up with untalented also-rans after their initial appointees either leave or burn out. Though he has largely flown under the radar since his confirmation, he is the perfect symbol for Obama’s fifth year in office during which he has lost the confidence of the public and demonstrated his inability to govern effectively on a host of issues. But he is more than a symbol. What the president needed was more than a steadier hand and tougher presence at Defense than Hagel. He needed someone of the stature of former secretary Robert Gates who, whatever his mistakes and failings, gave both Presidents Bush and Obama an alternative view to what many top advisers were whispering in their ears. Such a figure would have been invaluable this fall as Obama and Kerry rushed headlong into the arms of the Iranians in pursuit of their effort to create a new détente with the Islamist regime and to throw Israel under the bus. If Obama’s staffers now realize that Hagel is an empty suit that can’t advance their political agenda, it is the country that has lost even more by having an Obama yes-man at the Pentagon.

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The Arctic Strategy

At the Halifax Security Forum over the weekend, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laid out a new Arctic strategy for the U.S. military. The need for such a strategy is obvious given that the Arctic’s copious natural resources and fast routes for maritime travel are ready for exploitation because of the melting of the polar ice caps. If the U.S. doesn’t act to protect its interests, other nations such as Russia will seize the initiative.

Hagel is right to call on the U.S. armed forces to be ready to preserve freedom of navigation, defend Alaska, and to ensure the safety of efforts to operate in the Arctic environment. The question left unanswered is: How will we pay for this expanding mission?

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At the Halifax Security Forum over the weekend, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laid out a new Arctic strategy for the U.S. military. The need for such a strategy is obvious given that the Arctic’s copious natural resources and fast routes for maritime travel are ready for exploitation because of the melting of the polar ice caps. If the U.S. doesn’t act to protect its interests, other nations such as Russia will seize the initiative.

Hagel is right to call on the U.S. armed forces to be ready to preserve freedom of navigation, defend Alaska, and to ensure the safety of efforts to operate in the Arctic environment. The question left unanswered is: How will we pay for this expanding mission?

Sequestration isn’t going away anytime soon. Combined with previous budget cuts, this will result in a trillion dollars being sliced from the defense budget over the next decade. U.S. military capabilities will decline by at least a third. But U.S. military missions aren’t declining at all. They are growing. In addition to Arctic operations, the U.S. armed forces are stepping up cyber and space commitments, among others.

As I have repeatedly written, there is a growing mismatch between commitments and resources. It is not reasonable to expect the U.S. armed forces to do 30 percent more with 30 percent less money. Yet that seems to be what Washington wants. Unless Congress coughs up more money, and fast, the result will be a readiness crisis to recall the “hollow” days of the 1970s.

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Bashing Allies, Embracing Adversaries

One of the more disappointing aspects of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent Iran diplomacy is the willingness to sacrifice allies for the sake of ephemeral diplomatic deals, and the willingness to reward intransigence with concessions, all the while believing that incentive brings flexibility rather than contempt.

The Obama administration—or at least its chorus—has been particularly noxious in addressing criticism. Rather than addressing argument with argument, it has sought too often to smear those who disagree with the president or distrust Iranian motives. Hence, Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen smeared the Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Mark Dubowitz, suggesting that he acted on the instruction of Israel. Ali Gharib, a prolific tweeter and one-time “Open Zion” editor whom Peter Beinart lamented had been spuriously accused of anti-Semitism, implied that congressional opposition to Obama’s policy on Iran was because Israel controlled Congress. Then again, as many defenders of Chuck Hagel suggest, perhaps attributing opposing views to dual loyalty is not really anti-Semitic after all.

Perhaps it would be comforting for those slurred to believe that such behavior is simply the domain of the Obama administration, or motivated by disdain for Israel in certain policy circles. The problem is larger, however. It is a theme I explore in my forthcoming book, Dancing with the Devil, a study of a half century of U.S. attempts to engage rogue regimes and terrorist groups. It is not limited to the resentment with which Israel is treated as it dissents, nor did such practices start in 2009, when Obama took office.

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One of the more disappointing aspects of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent Iran diplomacy is the willingness to sacrifice allies for the sake of ephemeral diplomatic deals, and the willingness to reward intransigence with concessions, all the while believing that incentive brings flexibility rather than contempt.

The Obama administration—or at least its chorus—has been particularly noxious in addressing criticism. Rather than addressing argument with argument, it has sought too often to smear those who disagree with the president or distrust Iranian motives. Hence, Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen smeared the Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Mark Dubowitz, suggesting that he acted on the instruction of Israel. Ali Gharib, a prolific tweeter and one-time “Open Zion” editor whom Peter Beinart lamented had been spuriously accused of anti-Semitism, implied that congressional opposition to Obama’s policy on Iran was because Israel controlled Congress. Then again, as many defenders of Chuck Hagel suggest, perhaps attributing opposing views to dual loyalty is not really anti-Semitic after all.

Perhaps it would be comforting for those slurred to believe that such behavior is simply the domain of the Obama administration, or motivated by disdain for Israel in certain policy circles. The problem is larger, however. It is a theme I explore in my forthcoming book, Dancing with the Devil, a study of a half century of U.S. attempts to engage rogue regimes and terrorist groups. It is not limited to the resentment with which Israel is treated as it dissents, nor did such practices start in 2009, when Obama took office.

In 1993, the Clinton administration was engaged in a full-court press to engage North Korea which at the time was, much like today, threatening its neighbors and pushing ahead with a covert nuclear program. Whereas the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations had long coordinated with Seoul, South Korean warnings and its incessant urging of caution antagonized American diplomats who did not want South Korea’s analysis of North Korean politics, intentions, and diplomatic strategy to get in the way of a deal. When South Korean President Kim Young Sam tired of having his concerns dismissed or, even worse, belittled by diplomats who could not speak Korean and considered themselves experts on the region after just months on the job, complained to journalists that North Korea was leading America on and manipulating negotiators “to buy time,” the State Department was furious. When he repeated his criticism the following year, Clinton blew his top. In hindsight, of course, the South Koreans were right.

The goal of diplomacy should never be to reach a deal; rather, it should be to solve the problem. Alas, diplomats and presidents in search of a legacy often refuse to see the forest through the trees. They single-mindedly focus on getting to yes regardless of whether the cost of the deal outweighs the benefit. When evidence about an adversary’s behavior or intentions threatens forward diplomatic momentum, there are two possible actions: good presidents recalibrate policy to reflect the reality of an adversary. Bad presidents ignore evidence and slander those presenting it. Obama and Kerry appear intent on securing their legacy, although probably not in the way they intended.

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The Bureaucracy on Autopilot

On October 22, Kathleen Sebelius gave an interview to CNN’s Sanjay Gupta about the disastrous ObamaCare rollout, especially the “glitch”-plagued Healthcare.gov. What she told CNN was that President Obama was not aware of the problems with the site–“despite insurance companies’ complaints and the site’s crashing during a test run,” CNN added–until after the website launched.

How involved the president was on his signature health-care legislation became a subject of interest, since Sebelius was obviously trying to absolve her boss of blame for the project’s massive failures. So it was Sebelius’s fault, then? Well, not exactly, according to those who wished to either clear Sebelius’s name or paint her as an a out-of-touch apparatchik, depending on your interpretation. The day of her CNN interview the New York Times ran a story on Sebelius’s involvement in the project:

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On October 22, Kathleen Sebelius gave an interview to CNN’s Sanjay Gupta about the disastrous ObamaCare rollout, especially the “glitch”-plagued Healthcare.gov. What she told CNN was that President Obama was not aware of the problems with the site–“despite insurance companies’ complaints and the site’s crashing during a test run,” CNN added–until after the website launched.

How involved the president was on his signature health-care legislation became a subject of interest, since Sebelius was obviously trying to absolve her boss of blame for the project’s massive failures. So it was Sebelius’s fault, then? Well, not exactly, according to those who wished to either clear Sebelius’s name or paint her as an a out-of-touch apparatchik, depending on your interpretation. The day of her CNN interview the New York Times ran a story on Sebelius’s involvement in the project:

Republicans insist the buck stops with the secretary. But although Ms. Sebelius runs the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency directly responsible for the health care law, there are questions about how deeply she was involved in the development of the troubled Web site.

“Kathleen has the title, but she doesn’t have the responsibility or in many respects the kind of wide authority and access to the president that she really needs to make a difference,” said one person close to Ms. Sebelius and the White House, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss internal decision-making. “Everybody thinks that she’s the driving force, but unfortunately she’s not.”

Just who is steering this ship? Your guess is as good as Obama’s. Part of this is strategic, as I wrote last month: the president’s pursuit of plausible deniability at all costs often crowds out responsible decision making. But another part has to do with what Glenn Thrush writes about for the debut cover story of Politico Magazine. The president has sidelined his Cabinet to a degree that is unprecedented, according to Thrush.

In his fairly successful quest to have the media portray his Cabinet of like-minded mediocrities as a “team of rivals,” Obama wanted these heavy hitters to be seen and not heard. They were there to show the press that they were there. See how bipartisan Obama is? He has Ray LaHood serving as his secretary of transportation. See how much of a unifier the president is? He has asked two of his opponents in the nominating contest to serve as his vice president and his secretary of state. See how willing he is to be challenged intellectually? He has Nobel laureate Steven Chu as his energy secretary.

But these secretaries didn’t realize the president wanted them solely as decorative tree ornaments. So when Chu made a politically clumsy remark while giving a talk in Trinidad and Tobago during a trip abroad with administration figures, Rahm Emanuel, then the president’s chief of staff, called political advisor Jim Messina with a message: “If you don’t kill [Chu], I’m going to.”

Thrush reports:

For any modern president, the advantages of hoarding power in the White House at the expense of the Cabinet are obvious—from more efficient internal communication and better control of external messaging to avoiding messy confirmation battles and protecting against pesky congressional subpoenas. But over the course of his five years in office, Obama has taken this White House tendency to an extreme, according to more than 50 interviews with current and former secretaries, White House staffers and executive branch officials, who described his Cabinet as a restless nest of ambition, fits-and-starts achievement and power-jockeying under a shadow of unfulfilled promise.

That’s a far cry from the vision Obama sketched out in the months leading up to his 2008 election. Back then, he waxed expansive about the Cabinet, promising to rejuvenate the institution as a venue for serious innovation and genuine decision making. “I don’t want to have people who just agree with me,” he told Time magazine, after reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s classic account of President Abraham Lincoln and his advisers, Team of Rivals. “I want people who are continually pushing me out of my comfort zone.”

Obama, many of his associates now concede, never really intended to be pushed out of his comfort zone. While he personally recruited stars such as Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, most other picks for his first Cabinet were made by his staff, with less involvement from the president. “[Bill] Clinton spent almost all of his time picking the Cabinet at the expense of the White House staff; Obama made the opposite mistake,” says a person close to both presidents.

The most revealing part of that is not that Obama “never really intended to be pushed out of his comfort zone.” That much was obvious to anyone not in the tank for the president. Rather, it’s that the fact that he “never really intended to be pushed out of his comfort zone” is now clear even to those close to the president. He didn’t want to be challenged after all, they realized only too late.

And it was a learning experience for Obama too. So he downgraded in his second term to people like John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, the yes-men Obama always wanted. And so, it is no surprise that his agenda is in tatters, especially the disaster that is ObamaCare thus far. And it’s also no surprise that no one knows precisely who to blame, though the buck should really stop with the president. The bureaucracy is running on autopilot, and it’s running aground.

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Military Budget Numbers Don’t Add Up

Two items from Politico’s Morning Defense Roundup caught my eye today.

Item 1: “As Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation became painfully clear yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and other Navy ships to sail for the Philippines as quickly as possible….The George Washington is carrying Carrier Air Wing 5 with nine squadrons that include strike fighters, electronic attack aircraft and – crucially for disaster relief – MH-60 Seahawk helicopters. Two Navy cruisers and one destroyer are also expected to be on station with the carrier in as soon as two days.”

Item 2: “Just when Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale thought things could not get more uncertain and chaotic, they have. Now, he faces three very different budget scenarios for 2014, ranging from President Barack Obama’s $527 billion request for the Pentagon’s base budget to the $475 billion if sequestration is allowed to happen in January. ‘We still don’t know what fiscal ’14 is, which is an extraordinary situation,’ Hale said.”

There is a fundamental disconnect between these two news stories. The first story demonstrates that the demand for the U.S. military’s services is as great as ever and is hardly limited to war-fighting in the strictest sense. When an ally like the Philippines is hit with a natural disaster, the U.S. government naturally and rightly wants to help. How? There’s no civilian corps of disaster-response experts who can be scrambled to a faraway country at a minute’s notice. Only the U.S. military can do that.

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Two items from Politico’s Morning Defense Roundup caught my eye today.

Item 1: “As Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation became painfully clear yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and other Navy ships to sail for the Philippines as quickly as possible….The George Washington is carrying Carrier Air Wing 5 with nine squadrons that include strike fighters, electronic attack aircraft and – crucially for disaster relief – MH-60 Seahawk helicopters. Two Navy cruisers and one destroyer are also expected to be on station with the carrier in as soon as two days.”

Item 2: “Just when Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale thought things could not get more uncertain and chaotic, they have. Now, he faces three very different budget scenarios for 2014, ranging from President Barack Obama’s $527 billion request for the Pentagon’s base budget to the $475 billion if sequestration is allowed to happen in January. ‘We still don’t know what fiscal ’14 is, which is an extraordinary situation,’ Hale said.”

There is a fundamental disconnect between these two news stories. The first story demonstrates that the demand for the U.S. military’s services is as great as ever and is hardly limited to war-fighting in the strictest sense. When an ally like the Philippines is hit with a natural disaster, the U.S. government naturally and rightly wants to help. How? There’s no civilian corps of disaster-response experts who can be scrambled to a faraway country at a minute’s notice. Only the U.S. military can do that.

But the military is under severe strain right now because of budget cuts which are only going to get worse. The Pentagon comptroller is dreaming if he thinks Congress will repeal sequestration. Assuming these Draconian cuts continue to be implemented—and that’s almost certain right now—the result will be to eviscerate the very capabilities the U.S. military needs to respond not only to typhoons and earthquakes but also to more direct threats to our national security. For example, Hagel is contemplating reducing the number of aircraft carriers from 11 to eight or nine. Even before that happens, the readiness levels of all of our military forces—land, sea, and air—have been hurt by the ongoing budget cuts.

Yet there is no major push in Washington to reduce the number of missions the U.S. military is being asked to carry out. Our political leaders seem to want the armed forces to carry out 100 percent of their existing missions with only 70 percent of the funding. (Sequestration combined with earlier budget cuts will result in a roughly 30 percent reduction in the military budget over the next decade.) And even much of the existing budget is being swallowed up by personnel and health-care costs with increasingly little left over for operations, training, or weapons procurement. That doesn’t add up.

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Netanyahu’s Nay-Saying on Iran Is Working

For weeks, even people who share Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s suspicions of Iran have been loudly proclaiming that his tactics are all wrong: He’s alienating the world with his negative attitude toward the Iranian charm offensive. “His bombastic style is his undoing,” proclaimed Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former head of the Union for Reform Judaism, similarly warned that Netanyahu “should lower the tone, dispense with bluster,” since “In America, Israel is losing the debate on Iran.”

Given that nobody else on the planet even comes close to Netanyahu’s record of success in generating movement on the Iranian issue, I never understood why anyone would think they knew better than he how to do it. But I hadn’t noticed how effective his recent “bombastic bluster” has been until today, when a senior Israeli official pointed out something I’d missed: “We changed the conversation in which everyone was talking about easing the existing sanctions to a conversation in which everyone is discussing the need for preventing additional sanctions,” he said.           

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For weeks, even people who share Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s suspicions of Iran have been loudly proclaiming that his tactics are all wrong: He’s alienating the world with his negative attitude toward the Iranian charm offensive. “His bombastic style is his undoing,” proclaimed Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former head of the Union for Reform Judaism, similarly warned that Netanyahu “should lower the tone, dispense with bluster,” since “In America, Israel is losing the debate on Iran.”

Given that nobody else on the planet even comes close to Netanyahu’s record of success in generating movement on the Iranian issue, I never understood why anyone would think they knew better than he how to do it. But I hadn’t noticed how effective his recent “bombastic bluster” has been until today, when a senior Israeli official pointed out something I’d missed: “We changed the conversation in which everyone was talking about easing the existing sanctions to a conversation in which everyone is discussing the need for preventing additional sanctions,” he said.           

Nothing proves this better than President Barack Obama’s decision to convene an urgent meeting with American Jewish leaders last week to ask them not to press for more sanctions (two of the four groups present laudably refused). And while much of the credit for this goes to Congress, which has refused to take the threat of new sanctions off the table, there’s no doubt Netanyahu’s pressure contributed significantly.

First, that’s because nobody can be more Catholic than the pope: If Israel, which views Iranian nukes as an existential threat, weren’t vociferously objecting to the removal of existing sanctions and demanding new ones, it would be much harder for anyone else do so–certainly for American Jewish groups, but to some degree even for Congress.

Second, Israel’s track record shows that if it feels pushed to the wall by an existential threat, the chance of it taking military action can’t be ruled out. And since the world doesn’t want an Israeli attack on Iran, it has consistently tried to keep Israeli angst below that line. Netanyahu’s current campaign was thus aimed at convincing the world that easing sanctions would risk pushing Israel over the line–and he seems to have succeeded.  

This isn’t the first time Netanyahu has successfully used similar tactics. His credible threat of Israeli military action is what originally persuaded Europe to impose an oil embargo on Iran, as a French official acknowledged openly at the time: “We must do everything possible to avoid an Israeli attack on Iran, even if it means a rise in the price of oil and gasoline,” he said. This same credible threat is what bought time for negotiations by persuading Iran to curtail its 20 percent enrichment–as even the Washington Post, not usually a Netanyahu fan, acknowledged in April. And finally, it helped bring Iran to the negotiating table–something Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel acknowledged this week, but which Iran’s own Intelligence Ministry acknowledged a year ago, when it issued a report advocating diplomatic negotiations over its nuclear program to avert the threat of a “Zionist” attack.

None of this means the danger of a bad deal with Iran has passed; far from it. But the first step toward preventing a bad deal was to prevent a hasty removal of sanctions, and that, Netanyahu seems to have accomplished.

He certainly knows that threatening military action and dismissing Iranian charm offensives as meaningless won’t make him popular. But so far, it has proven effective–and as long as that remains true, he will quite rightly be prepared to dispense with being loved.

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Too Soon to Call Sequester a Success

From the standpoint of a budget hawk like Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, the budget sequestration process may indeed look like a success. “After President Obama’s first two years in office, many in Washington expected that number to hit $4 trillion by 2014,” Moore writes. “Instead, spending fell to $3.537 trillion in fiscal 2012, and is on pace to fall below $3.45 trillion by the end of this fiscal year (Sept. 30). The $150 billion budget decline of 4% is the first time federal expenditures have fallen for two consecutive years since the end of the Korean War.”

That is certainly good news, given the long-term threat to our international standing posed by runaway spending, even if there is cause to doubt how lasting the success of sequestration will be. As R. Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane write in the New York Times, “The C.B.O. still anticipates a 2015 deficit of $378 billion. And Uncle Sam is heading — and this is the best-case scenario — toward nearly a trillion dollars of red ink every year after 2023.”

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From the standpoint of a budget hawk like Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, the budget sequestration process may indeed look like a success. “After President Obama’s first two years in office, many in Washington expected that number to hit $4 trillion by 2014,” Moore writes. “Instead, spending fell to $3.537 trillion in fiscal 2012, and is on pace to fall below $3.45 trillion by the end of this fiscal year (Sept. 30). The $150 billion budget decline of 4% is the first time federal expenditures have fallen for two consecutive years since the end of the Korean War.”

That is certainly good news, given the long-term threat to our international standing posed by runaway spending, even if there is cause to doubt how lasting the success of sequestration will be. As R. Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane write in the New York Times, “The C.B.O. still anticipates a 2015 deficit of $378 billion. And Uncle Sam is heading — and this is the best-case scenario — toward nearly a trillion dollars of red ink every year after 2023.”

More immediately, the danger from a military standpoint is that we are purchasing deficit reduction at the cost of a catastrophic loss of military capability and readiness. As Moore himself notes, “The defense budget is on a pace to hit its lowest level (as a share of GDP) since the days of the post-Cold War ‘peace dividend’ during the Clinton years.” He concedes that “these deep cutbacks could be dangerous to national security,” but he argues that “as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were winding down, defense would have been cut under any scenario.” Perhaps so, but there was nothing inevitable to dictate that cuts would be so deep–amounting to some $1 trillion over the next decade–or that they would be enacted so indiscriminately across the board.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave an overview of the unpalatable choices facing the Defense Department when he unveiled the results of a strategic review of spending. Even assuming a 20-percent reduction in headquarters overhead and a $50 billion reduction in military compensation–by no means easy to pull off–the armed forces will still have to cut a lot of muscle to achieve their budget targets.

Option 1 would be to cut the size of the existing armed forces dramatically to preserve investment in cutting-edge technologies. This would mean: “The active Army would drop to between 380,000 and 450,000 troops [from a peak of 570,000]. The number of Navy carrier strike groups would be reduced from a target of 11 to eight or nine. The Marine Corps would be reduced from 182,000 troops to between 150,000 and 175,000. And the Pentagon would retire older Air Force bombers.”

Option 2 would be to preserve more forces in being while cutting investments in “the Air Force’s new bomber, submarine cruise missile upgrades, the F-35 Lightning II, cyber capabilities and special operations forces.”

Either way, the U.S. will suffer a dangerous loss of military capability and hence influence in the world at the same time that the long-term danger from China and the short-term dangers from Iran and al-Qaeda are only growing. Ultimately, history teaches that decline of international security and stability will have parlous consequences for the American economy (see, for worst-case scenarios, the 1930s and 1970s), which will ultimately necessitate a large military buildup and make projected budget savings illusory. It makes more sense to keep in existence the top-notch American armed forces as they have been developed at great cost and effort since the last period of major cuts in the 1970s. But that would require repealing sequestration, which appears increasingly unlikely.

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