Michael KreponDanger Signs

The Republican Party in the United States has adopted positions on social issues and the environment that are at odds with those of the majority of the voting public. Their signature opposition to “Obamacare” is losing ground. Both parties gerrymander and receive large sums from major donors, but Republican legislators benefit more from laws reaffirmed or struck down by a one-vote margin on the Supreme Court. Gerrymandered Congressional districts drawn up by gerrymandered state legislatures have tipped the scales toward the Grand Old Party in the House of Representatives. Republican legislators are betting that they do not have to make deals with the Obama administration to retain control of the House and perhaps win the Senate in November. They cannot win the presidency on domestic issues, but the Obama administration is one damaging foreign policy and national security crisis away from handing the keys to the White House over to the Republican Party in 2016.

Over time, Ukraine may become a signal success for the West, if Kiev has competent leadership and receives sufficient economic and military assistance to deal with domestic challenges and to reorient the country toward Europe. In the short run, however, Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the tentative, circumscribed nature of U.S. and NATO responses have undermined President Obama’s standing on the world stage. Those around him provide insufficient help for trials of this magnitude.

The daily drumbeat of media opposition to the Obama administration from the echo chamber of Fox News and right-wing radio do not sway the voting public – they reinforce grievances of those already convinced. Foreign and national security crises affect broader audiences. Once a president’s perceived standing to represent U.S. interests abroad begins to slip, it’s easier to slide further downhill than to reverse course. If another damaging crisis accompanies the continued decline in defense spending, a strong Republican presidential candidate can buck demographic trends and move into the White House. Reconsidering deficit reduction is good politics and good for national security.

Three foreign crises could be looming. The first is with China over offshore islands that U.S. friends and allies claim. The second is with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel, which is seething over the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran and its response to the formation of a new Palestinian coalition government that includes Hamas. Localized Israeli military action would not come as a surprise, prompted by casualties taken at home. The third is the growing possibility of another confrontation between India and Pakistan in which Washington’s standard crisis-management playbook proves insufficient. The next attack on a major airport could be in India instead of Pakistan.

It’s possible that all three of these crises can be avoided over the remainder of the Obama presidency. China’s leadership is focusing on economic growth, corruption and social cohesion. Palestinian leaders might reason that this is not a good time to carry out attacks against Israelis. President Obama and his partners might succeed in negotiating an outcome with Iran that is far more protective of Israeli interests than the cartoon depiction of the nuclear threat used by Netanyahu to instruct the UN General Assembly in September 2012. And perhaps India and Pakistan will finally improve relations by engineering a substantial growth in direct trade – a deal that will not be interrupted by yet another spectacular act of terrorism in India by the usual suspects in Pakistan, either unencumbered or assisted by Pakistan’s intelligence services. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services are, after all, facing severe internal security threats, and have good reason to avoid another confrontation with India.

Realistically speaking, the odds of avoiding every one of these crises are less than the odds of something going badly wrong. The focus of my next post will be on signs of trouble ahead in South Asia.


  1. Ataune (History)

    The way you are framing the debate one can only conclude that: logic dictates that when you are pushing for a set of policy (A and B and C) and the chances of (-A or -B or -C) happening are greater than your expected outcome, then you should invest less effort on one or more of those policies not more.

    But, I would say that India-Pakistan are not bound to affect the next presidential election; Iran’s and China’s cases have already passed the Rubicon; the first toward accommodation and the second containment. So whoever comes next in 2016, Republican or Democrat, s/he will follow the same path and the same direction.

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    “If another damaging crisis accompanies the continued decline in defense spending, a strong Republican presidential candidate can… move into the White House…. good for national security.” Politics aside, are you advocating an increase in defense spending? If so, why?

    U.S. military spending outclasses everyone else combined. Does the U.S. currently face a peer competitor intent on world domination? Why is more defense spending now more prudent than spending on eduction, roads, clean energy or other investments for sustainable economic growth that can later be used to deter or fight future wars, if need be?

    Which of the above three crises can be prevented by more U.S. defense spending now? China/Islands?-Not needed now, maybe in future. Israel/Iran/Hamas?-No. India/Pakistan?-No.

    • krepon (History)


      I’ll answer your fair question, but first allow me to ask you four simple questions.

      What single word would you use to best describe the foreign and national security policies of the George W. Bush administration?

      What single word would you use to best describe the foreign and national security policies of the Obama administration?

      Now combine these two words and tell me whether US standing in the world since 2001 has grown or diminished.

      Is this a good thing?

      If your answer is ‘diminished,’ how would you propose to reverse this trend?


    • P (History)

      Well, if *I* were to answer these four question, I would say :

      Awful; Misguided; Notably diminished, which is a bad thing; and, well, honestly, No idea, but I fear there’s no silver bullet to such an issue. Maybe defend the right moral side, strongly, long enough, and wait? (But I suspect you’ve a better suggestion).

      (By the way, yes, I prefer the word “Misguided” over “Weak”. The Obama administration isn’t weak at all when it comes to fighting, say, islamic terrorism, but thanks to Russia and China, this isn’t the main threat anymore. I guess this is yet another case of fighting the previous war… But, well, hindsight is always 20/20.)

      From a different point of view, I fear that one thing the three potential crisis you’re evoking have in common is that they’re issues onto which the US can have nearly no influence…

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      To your 4 questions: Bush, Jr.-unbalanced (two wars, one strictly optional, contemptuous of diplomacy); Obama-balanced (no new wars, more diplomacy); US standing–back to normal (nations no longer afraid U.S. will act like Godzilla).

      To see the impact of threatening behavior on a country’s standing in the world, see China. After China’s bellicose behavior over various islands, how many countries are running away from China and toward the U.S.? Also, see Russia, same result. Obama has improved U.S. standing by ensuring strength is buttressed by self-restraint and diplomacy, so that war is either avoided or shown to be necessary.

    • krepon (History)


      The avoidance of costly, open-ended wars that have very uncertain outcomes is a good thing — especially after fighting two of them for over a decade.

      But America’s friends, allies and competitors don’t judge the Obama record by this yardstick. They are more focused on indicators like… whether the US is providing military assistance to certain Syrian groups fighting the Assad regime, the new Ukrainian government, and the guy clearing out militias in Libya that target US diplomats. By these indicators, President Obama is demonstrating an excess of caution. Which translates into the conclusion that US support in a pinch is an iffy proposition.

      No investment in national security provides immediate returns. If this is your standard, money spent on, say, a new surface combatant that could help assure friends and allies in the Pacific about US security guarantees and promises would be money wasted.

      When an image of US retrenchment is gaining ground, and when defense spending cuts reinforce this image, problems are compounded. Immediate and visible steps are required, in my view, to combat this perception. Sending nuclear-capable bombers to Europe is less than ideal, but I get the point. An increase in defense spending for conventional capabilities would be helpful at this juncture.


    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Sequestration has cut defense spending the most, but many Congressional Republicans are unconcerned. A future Republican President might well say, “I am pro-defense, but we need to cut defense spending.” One reason is budget trends. As the baby boomers age, retirement and medical expenses go up, crowding out all other expenditures unless taxes rise to pay for it. Many Republicans would prefer to see defense spending decline, than raise taxes.

      Trashing Obama’s foreign policy does not tell us whether we need more defense spending. A recommendation on future defense spending requires predicting the future threat environment. Will Russia and China be increasing or reducing their belligerence? Will China’s economic growth translate into a significant military competition with the U.S.? China is currently the world’s # 2 economy in terms of total GDP and may soon be # 1.

    • krepon (History)
  3. Bradley Laing (History)

    —Idea: draw up a map with the current nuclear infrastructure in the United States, ICBM silos, air bases, submarine pens. Write a “D” by those with heavy Democratic politicians in the area, who will fight to fund them while horse-trading with a Democratic President. Write a “R” by those with heavy Republican politicians in that area, who will fight to fund them with a Republican President.

    –In this way, could you guess the likely size and shape of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the year 2020, by thinking about who would win the White House?

  4. krepon (History)

    missing from my analysis: the disintegration of Iraq

    • j_kies (History)

      Not ‘disintegration’ as it was a product of the Foreign Office with blatant disregard of the tribes and ethnic groups on the ground – it was never integrated. Saddam held the whole mess together with brutal violence and heavy suppression.

      Perhaps the diplomats might trade in the hyperbole that is in play and actually analyze the end states that might have stability – aren’t we seeing “Kurdistan”, Greater Basra (Shiite) and Greater Anbar (Sunni).

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      With events still unfolding, it is too soon to do a full analysis. In the meantime we have a new acronym to worry about, ISIS, “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” a one-year-old terrorist group said to be worse than al-Qaida. It is a dark day in Iraq, that could get darker. The Iraqi people, if they can figure out a way, may be able to push back against this darkness.

    • P (History)

      @krepon :

      Yes, but… Can the Republicans actually use this crisis in their favor? I mean, in this case, it’s going to be hard to hide the role of the Bush II administration…

    • krepon (History)

      I don’t see how. Bush, Cheney & Rumsfeld lifted the lid off this sectarian pressure cooker and turned up the heat by getting rid of Saddam and his state apparatus. Seemed like a good idea at the time, what with Saddam’s WMD — post 9/11. Talk about the law of unintended consequences. In the annals of bad US national security calls, this one keeps getting worse. But I agree with you: if The Dems lose the White House, it won’t be for this national security/foreign policy mess. It will be for mistakes that can’t be blamed on the Bush administration.