Foreign Policy – 2010-10-12 23:07:48
A Plan B for Obama
WASHINGTON (November 2010) — Nearly two years ago, Obama swept into office promising to defeat terrorism, withdraw “responsibly” from Iraq, make peace in Afghanistan, forge “greater cooperation and understanding between nations,” pursue a world without nuclear weapons, and “roll back the specter of a warming planet.” And that was just one paragraph of his inaugural address.
“Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans,” the new US president declared. “Their memories are short.”
If Obama’s optimism wasn’t immediately tempered by his predecessor’s daunting legacy — two inconclusive wars, an economy in free fall, soaring deficits — it soon became evident that his vision might have exceeded his grasp.
Twenty-two months later, Obama has notched a few significant achievements, and he remains popular around the world. But he faces rising discontent at home and a much less supportive Congress after midterm elections as economists warn ominously of a “double-dip” recession. Progress on issues ranging from climate change to Middle East peace to Iranian nukes has been scant — and it’s hard to find an autocrat who has unclenched his fist.
In other words, it’s time for a fresh approach. Take it from a president who knows a thing or two about missteps: “If you live long enough, you’ll make mistakes,” wrote Bill Clinton. “It’s how you handle adversity, not how it affects you. The main thing is never quit, never quit, never quit.”
So read on for Foreign Policy‘s Presidential Plan B: 10 things Obama should do now, so that the next two years don’t go to waste. From a politically savvy idea for raising taxes — really! — to a serious antidote for our oil addiction to unorthodox new ways to speak to Muslims around the world, here’s how the president can get back on track.
TAKE IT TO THE PEOPLE
Facing a continuing array of grave challenges abroad and an even more divided and hostile Congress a mile down Pennsylvania Avenue, Barack Obama will have to either surrender to short-term political pressures or invent a new form of public diplomacy, one aimed at Americans themselves.
His situation is very different from that of US President Harry Truman after the 1946 midterm elections that decimated Democrats. Indeed, Truman’s greatest achievements — like the Marshall Plan — came during the next two years. For that Republican Congress, at the dawn of the Cold War, politics stopped at the water’s edge. Not today. Every question, from basic constitutional rights to the fight against terrorism, has become grist for the exceedingly fine grind of the partisan mill.
And that was before the midterm elections. Imagine what the rest of Obama’s term will be like.
The United States can’t afford two years of stalemate in foreign policy. At the same time, the president can’t, for instance, leave Afghanistan regardless of the consequences to keep the support of his own party, or stay forever to avoid accusations from the opposition that he’s “soft” on national security. Those attacks will come no matter what he does. To lead in the national interest, Obama should go beyond the familiar pattern of forging a bipartisan coalition of “responsible” members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. There won’t be enough of them. On critical issues like Afghanistan and Iran, Obama will need to take his case to the people directly, as he did so convincingly as a candidate. This means a continuing conversation in town halls and speeches that connect both emotionally and logically with a majority of Americans. Foreign-policy-speak just won’t do.
Only if he moves public opinion will he be able to move Congress. Otherwise, he will be a prisoner of partisan maneuver and division. It’s not just economic underperformance that could send Obama back to Illinois in two years. So could a festering, unpopular war or an appearance of weakness, waffling, or defeat on big-stakes questions like a nuclear Iran. Obama needs to become the diplomat-in-chief — not just for US allies overseas, but for his own citizenry at home.
Robert Shrum, a senior fellow at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, was a senior advisor to John Kerry’s and Al Gore’s presidential campaigns.
GET OFF OIL
R. James Woolsey
Americans borrow $1 billion a day to import oil. This is a huge share of the US trade deficit and a major factor in weakening the dollar. Hundreds of billions a year go to the Middle East and end up funding improvised explosive devices and Wahhabi schools, which teach hatred of other religions, the stoning of women, death to apostates and homosexuals, and the need to work toward a worldwide caliphate. It is not an accident that 8 of the 10 largest oil exporters are dictatorships or autocratic kingdoms whose rulers profit massively from oil’s gigantic economic rents.
Oil also causes terrible environmental problems. Not only are its carbon emissions nearly as much as those of coal, but the so-called “aromatics” (benzene, toluene, and xylene) that constitute about one-quarter of what’s in our gasoline tanks are highly carcinogenic. Careful and authoritative studies put the cost of dealing with the aromatics’ damage to our health and consequently shortened life spans at well over $100 billion annually.
For too long, American politicians have said that “foreign oil” is a problem and then gone on to propose ineffective or impossibly expensive solutions. Barack Obama needs to move away from oil, period. “Drill, baby, drill” can help some with the US balance of payments, but will do nothing to undermine OPEC’s control of the oil market. Nor are expensive nuclear power plants or wind farms the answer — only 2 percent of US electricity comes from oil. Cap and trade? The only major environmental policy measure that Obama has seized on is possibly a useful tool, if done right, for discouraging high-carbon electricity generation — but it has almost nothing to do with oil’s use in transportation. And besides, Obama hasn’t been able to get it passed by Congress — nor will he.
Obama should not devote resources to solutions, such as hydrogen, that will take many years to develop and have high infrastructure costs. Instead, he should turn to a portfolio of steps that can move the United States off oil in the near term. Here are five things he can do now:
1) Create incentives for the large-scale production of plug-in hybrid cars and all-electric vehicles;
2) Mandate that fleet vehicles, such as city buses and some interstate trucking, be fueled with natural gas;
3) Follow Brazil’s lead and move to an open-standard, flexible-fuel vehicle requirement so that alcohol fuels can compete with gasoline;
4) Require drastic efficiency increases for internal combustion engines; and
5) Encourage auto companies to move toward carbon composites, which will lighten automobiles and require smaller engines to propel them.
Even if each of these solutions reduced oil transportation demand by only about 10 percent over the next decade, Obama could shatter oil’s transportation monopoly — now about 95 percent in the United States. If the president doesn’t take such steps immediately, Americans face a grim future: falling ever more heavily into debt, funding terrorism, empowering dictators, contributing to climate change, and giving themselves cancer.
R. James Woolsey, chairman of Woolsey Partners, is former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
GIVE THE PUBLIC A GREEN CHECK
Climate policy is not rocket science. Our fossil-fuel addiction cannot be solved if fossil fuels are the cheapest energy. But fossil-fuel energy is cheapest only because the producers of fossil fuels receive direct and indirect subsidies and are not made to pay for their costs to society — such as health risks and long-term climate-change remediation. Until Barack Obama tackles this fundamental incongruity, the United States will remain stuck in useless and costly political battles like the rancid, partisan, congressional cap-and-trade debacle of the last two years.
Instead of getting a free ride, fossil fuels should pay their fair share via a gradually rising carbon fee collected from fossil-fuel companies at the domestic mine or port of entry. All funds collected should be distributed directly to the public on a per capita basis via a monthly “green check.” This will spur the US economy and promote clean-energy innovations. In the short term, more than 60 percent of the US population would receive more in their green check than they would pay out in increased energy prices. (This won’t be true for the wealthiest Americans, as they tend to use more energy.)
The best part about a rising carbon price is that it provides the only realistic chance for an international climate accord. Obama was right not to depend on last year’s 192-country, cap-and-trade talkfest in Copenhagen. But he can’t give up on an agreement between the world’s two top emitters: the United States and China.
The Chinese will never agree to a “cap” on their carbon emissions. But China seems willing to negotiate a carbon price. Why? Not only are its leaders concerned about the country’s environmental quality, they also want to avoid the fossil-fuel addiction that has hobbled the United States. More importantly, they stand to profit: Beijing is making enormous investments in nuclear, wind, and solar power.
If the United States were to strongly incentivize green choices, China’s factories would struggle to keep up with consumer demand. And once the United States and China agree on what the right carbon fee should be, most other countries will go along.
Lest we forget, stabilizing climate change is a moral issue. Our fossil-fuel addiction, if unabated, threatens our children and grandchildren, and most species on the planet. If Obama dreams of being a great president, he needs to take on the great moral challenge of our century.
James Hansen heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and is author of Storms of My Grandchildren.
CUT (REALLY CUT) MILITARY SPENDING
Despite all the hype about Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his cuts of big-ticket military projects, the Pentagon’s $680 billion budget is actually slated to increase in coming years. This is unconscionable at a time when taxpayers are under enormous stress and when the US government must reduce spending across the board. Barack Obama can save big bucks without undermining US security — but only if he refocuses the military on a few, core missions.
Unfortunately, the president has shown no real interest in cutting military spending or in revisiting the purpose of US military power. Why not? For all his talk of change, Obama has continued on the path set by his predecessors. Like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him, he sees the US military as the world’s sole policeman, and its armed social worker. It is this all-encompassing mission that requires a large military — and a very expensive one. Americans today spend more on their military, adjusting for inflation, than at any time during the Cold War, even though the threats that they face are quite modest.
If Obama is serious about reducing the deficit and keeping US troops out of “dumb wars,” as he famously dubbed them, he should put his money where his mouth is. Cutting defense spending is the only reliable way to stifle Washington’s impulse to send US troops on ill-considered missions around the globe.
The hawks will scream, but America will be just fine. Obama can capitalize on the country’s unique advantages — wide oceans to the east and west, friendly neighbors to the north and south, a dearth of powerful enemies globally, and the wealth to adapt to dangers as they arise — by adopting a grand strategy of restraint. T
he United States could shed the burden of defending other countries that are able to defend themselves, abandon futile efforts to fix failed states, and focus on those security challenges that pose the greatest threat to America. A strategic shift of this magnitude will not only reduce conflict and make the United States safer, but it will enable Obama to reshape the military to suit this more modest set of objectives, at a price that’s far easier for taxpayers to swallow.
Christopher Preble is director of foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free.
DUMP THE NUKES
Barack Obama needs to get real about actual cuts in America’s still-enormous stockpile of nuclear weapons — or his nuclear legacy won’t even match that of Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush.
So far, the president has made modest progress shrinking stockpiles and preventing new nations and terrorists from getting nuclear weapons. But these gains have been hard won, and his entire strategy is now at risk: Negotiating the New START treaty with Russia took too long, and political opponents slowed Senate approval.
Delay is dangerous. It threatens other planned efforts, including nuclear-test bans and a global lockup of all weapons materials. And it will create diplomatic havoc. Other countries agreed to stronger efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation based on Obama’s promise to convince nuclear-armed states to reduce their arsenals. If reductions stall, so will cooperation. Countries will hedge their bets, and nuclear materials and technology will spread.
But Obama can regain momentum by executing reductions that don’t depend on Russia or the Senate. The first President Bush did this in 1991, unilaterally eliminating more than 3,000 weapons and denuclearizing the US Army and surface Navy. Obama should begin by taking limited measures: disclose how many weapons the United States has in its nuclear stockpile, step up the pace of dismantlement of the estimated 4,200 excess bombs (Bill Clinton took apart about 1,000 a year, George W. Bush just 300, and Obama could get to 450 easily), and immediately cut the deployed strategic weapons to 1,550, instead of waiting the seven years the New START treaty allows.
Then it’s time for bold moves: Obama should unilaterally reduce the active US arsenal to 1,000 weapons (which is still three times more than US Air Force experts judge are necessary) and remove the 200 US nuclear bombs that remain in Europe.
Such cuts won’t hurt US or global security in the least — and Obama has plenty of bipartisan, expert support for cuts of this size. They would put him on the road to fulfilling his compelling promise of a truly nuclear-free world.
Joseph Cirincione is president of the Ploughshares Fund.
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