June 20, 2016

CNAS 2016 Tenth Annual Conference: The Obama Legacy and America’s Role in the World

            MS.      :  (In progress) – of the Center for a New American Security, joined in 2008 – (inaudible) – 15 months on foreign affairs, including – (inaudible).


MR.     :  Thank you so much for that (talk ?).  It’s just like a five-minute – (inaudible).  Realism is only appreciated after something has gone demonstrably wrong.  Best example of that in recent history is the Iraq war, where in 2005-6-7 the boomlet for realism on the liberal op-ed pages.  You know, that quickly faded, but if you remember back at that time, realism was old-fashioned.  Realism also has to be proven by events because if events prove an idealist wrong, that person’s still respected for having a lofty vision, but the realist vision is not lofty at all and, therefore, if events don’t prove him or her right, they are often (rebuked ?).


Now, George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama, more for reasons of inclination rather than intellectual exploration, have been realists or think of themselves as realist – consciously think of themselves.  Now, Bush, remember – remember what I said: realists have to be proved correct by events.  Bush, at the time of Tiananmen Square, killed thousands of people – the Communist Party did – Bush as national security adviser decided they were not going to break diplomatic relations with China, but were going to continue dealing with the Chinese – very unpopular at the time in the media.


The two-plus-four talks with Germany – it was the (pink ?) wing not just of the Democratic Party, but national security – (inaudible) – like George Kennan and all those – who did not want to expand NATO membership over all of Germany, but only to the Western half.  The Bush administration said we’ll have nothing to do with that – very controversial.  And of course there was Desert Storm, when they made the decision not to go on to Baghdad, but only to liberate Kuwait – not completely popular at the time. 


But because events proved Bush’s – the elder Bush administration right in all of those things over time, because remember China had an economic boom lasting three decades, hundreds of million – tens of millions of people moved into the middle class – tremendous new personal liberties if not political liberties.  So the Tiananmen, Two-Plus-Four, limiting Desert Storm to just Kuwait proved the Bush administration right and so over time this realism was judged to be perhaps the second best one-term president in American history and foreign policy after James Polk, who doubled the size of the United States in one term in the mid-19th century.


Then we have Barack Obama, and Barack Obama decided he was not going to put troops – (inaudible).  He was not going to nation-build in Libya because Libya was not a country, it was just a vague geographical expression.  He didn’t use those words, but it’s clear that that’s how he felt.


On Syria he decided not to intervene in a very deep, granular sense because he was afraid of getting as involved in a bad way as perhaps his predecessor did in Iraq.  And then, of course, it was Iraq itself where the Obama administration decided to pull out completely – (inaudible) – 2011 rather than leave a residual force, assuming that a residual force, even one of 20,000 or so, would simply get caught in the crossfire – you know, would prove ineffectual.  We don’t know – we cannot have a definitive decision on if those decisions were right or if they were wrong.  It may take many years for all of this to pan out.


There are mainly two questions that I’ll leave you with because I don’t have answers about Barack Obama because he’s still the president and as we know from a previous realist, it sometimes takes many years.  One is, is Barack Obama more like Jimmy Carter or more like George H.W. Bush?  This Democratic president would much rather be viewed like – (inaudible) – Republican president in this regard. 


And finally, if Barack Obama’s policy is restraint, caution, and strategic patience – (inaudible) – product of just him and we’re going to see it completely reversed starting in February or so, or is this part of a trend?  After the hyperactivity of American involvement overseas from 1945 to 2008, perhaps the American public, having seen that – you know, seeing the world as so intractable, so complex, and also what’s underwritten in an activist foreign policy is going to help the middle class.  And so – (inaudible) – middle class’s frame (or partner ?) – all economists say this.  So perhaps Obama is part of a new trend.  I don’t have an answer to that, but I do know that some people who’ve thought about this much more deeply and from an insider’s perspective, unlike me – (inaudible).  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)


JAI LYNN YANG:  Thank you, Bob, for setting the table so nicely for our discussion. 


So brief introductions.  To my left, Derek Chollet, counselor and senior advisor for security and defense policy for the German Marshall Fund for the United States and author of the book coming out next week called, “The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America” – (inaudible).  From 2012 to 2015 Mr. Chollet was the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs – (inaudible) – U.S. defense policy toward Europe, toward NATO, the Middle East – (inaudible) – Western Hemisphere.  In that role he was a senior advisor to two secretaries of defense: Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel.  Prior to (coming on ?), he was – served in the White House as a special assistant to the president and – (inaudible) – National Security Council staff.


Further to my left we have Richard Fontaine, of course the president of the Center for a New American Security.  Richard served as a senior advisor and senior fellow at CNAS – (inaudible) – and previously was foreign policy advisor to (Senator John McCain ?) for more than five years.


So let’s start with you. I think if we’re going to talk about Obama’s legacy, why don’t we start with an outline of what we think his doctrine is.  Does he have a doctrine?  (Inaudible.)


DEREK CHOLLET:  Sure.  First, it’s great to be with all of you.  I’ve got the most important two years – (inaudible) – as a CNAS fellow in 2006 to – the first two years of CNAS’s history.  A great pleasure to be back here again and just to see how much this organization has prospered and continued to drive so much of the debate here in Washington.  It’s a real pleasure to be here.  And thanks also to my former colleague, Bob, for that great introduction.  He teed up a lot of the issues quite well, particularly this interesting comparison between President Obama and President H.W. Bush.


With respect to that comparison, President Obama himself made – (inaudible) – foreign policy – (inaudible) – the other stars in the Democratic firmament.  He talks about presidents like George H.W. Bush and Dwight Eisenhower.  And we are at this interesting moment where in the Democratic president hearkening back to those Republican years and I don’t think a single Republican in the presidential race this time around talked about George H.W. Bush or Dwight Eisenhower as presidents to emulate.  It’s interesting – Jeb Bush spent more time talking about his brother, George W., than his father, whereas the president of the United States liked being compared to George H.W. Bush.


In terms of an Obama doctrine, I don’t actually think there is a doctrine, and President Obama himself would say that he doesn’t believe that there should be a doctrine.  Most presidents do reject the idea that their foreign policies – (inaudible) – narrow down to one particular doctrine. They try to avoid the D-word because they see doctrines as cookie-cutter approaches and the world is of course more complicated than that. 


I think there are – I call them in my book foreign policy checklists.  There are elements of Obama’s approach to the world that can help infuse all of his (political ?) decisions.  These aren’t the elements that one would find – (inaudible) – discuss in the White House Situation Room, but they include things like balance and sustainability, precision and, indeed, restraint and fallibility and skepticism and of course exceptionalism.  And at the end of the book I walk through how each of those attributes can be seen in the decisions that were made, and of course they all involve tradeoffs.  And this is one of the things that we spend a lot of our time debating in Washington is how presidents manage those tradeoffs. 


And I think Obama is very aware that if you decide to get too deeply involved in one place, it’s going to mean less bandwidth, less resources, less time and attention in another place.  And I think he came into office in 2009 with (an acute ?) sense that the United States was out of balance in the world.  It was in a situation at home and abroad where we had a leadership deficit, we had a resource deficit, and that we needed to arrest that downward trend that we were on in 2008.  We got there for a variety of reasons, which I’m happy to discuss. 


And I believe that if we’re looking at the inheritance that the next president is going to inherit in 2009, the world’s very complicated – no doubt about it – but you’re looking at quite (good inheritance ?).  And the United States at home still has problems, but it’s in a much better place than it was in June of 2008 and – (inaudible).  Despite the huge challenges we have abroad, the United States is more deeply engaged in more parts of the world than ever before and in a greater variety of ways, not just the use of military force but diplomatically, using development, using nongovernmental tools.  And the United States – (inaudible). 


So I feel that the next president has a lot of challenges before him or her, but will be dealing with them from a much stronger position than President Obama found himself dealing from in 2008.


MS. YANG:  Do you have any thoughts on looking from the outside?


RICHARD FONTAINE:  Sure, but let me start by saying thanks, Bob, and to you two, but – (inaudible) – was actually coming up on the stage with – (inaudible) – ankle, so – (inaudible) – little bit of an advantage.


I think it’s hard. Certainly economically the United States is in a – (inaudible) – position now than it was in 2009 in the wake of the financial crisis and the repercussions – (inaudible) – but I think that it’s hard to look at large swaths of the world and see it as more stable and safer for American interests today than it was in 2009.  I mean, Russia in 2009 had not annexed by force territory of a neighbor.  It was not on a daily basis causing American vessels and – (inaudible) – airspace of NATO allies.  China was not as assertive in the South China Sea.  It had not declared an air defense identification zone in the (East ?) China Sea.  In the Middle East you did not have a terrorist sanctuary that was the largest geographic expanse in history and continues to this day.  You didn’t have three million-plus Syrian refugees putting pressure on the European Union, all of its neighbors – (inaudible).  And you didn’t have a failed state in Libya that is now also a sanctuary for international terrorism. 


Now, you can say Obama is not responsible for all of that, but he certainly is not – but then you can’t give him all the credit for the good stuff. 


MR. CHOLLET:  Well, the world’s very – (inaudible) – and some historical perspective is important.  I mean, 1968 looked pretty tough.  If we were having this conference in June of 1968 and seeing 500,000 troops in South Vietnam, we would have seen Soviet tanks in Prague, we would see the country ripping itself apart politically with protests on the street at the Democratic National Convention.  Nineteen-seventy-nine looked pretty tough, too, with Soviet tanks in Afghanistan, American hostages in Iran, and a worldwide energy crisis.  Two-thousand-eight was terrible.  Worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, 150,000 troops in Iraq, and U.S. prestige at an all-time low around the world. 


So the question is not is the world complicated.  The question is, what position are we, the United States, in to be able to deal with the problems and bring countries together by our side by using the different attributes of our leadership to try to help solve these problems, to try to give people an opportunity to make their lives better.  And I think, you know, it’s not about these problems are all about us, and I think I agree with what you just said.  I think President Obama would agree.  I mean, a lot of what Richard’s just described are things that have nothing to do with the United States.  I mean, Russia was pretty nasty in 2008 when it swallowed up a good chunk of Georgia, right? 


China was on the rise in 2008.  I would argue that China was one of the two countries in the world that benefitted the most from the events of the 2000s because while we were bogged down in the Middle East and dealing with a financial crisis, their power was cranking up and they saw this as a big opportunity to make a play to try to displace us in the world while we were bogged down in our wars in the Middle East.


And as I say, that’s something that President Obama and his administration certainly saw, which is one of the reasons why we had to rebalance (the ship ?) and that meant putting a lot of our bandwidth – leadership, military, diplomatic – towards the challenges of the Asia Pacific.  And the logic being if we were wrapped around the axel of another war in the Middle East, we’re not going to be able to do a rebalance.  This is not – restraint is required because there are limits to what the United States can do and I think this is something – it’s an interesting attribute of Obama and I think George H.W. Bush does share it: he – (inaudible) – to contemplate openly limits.  And it’s kind of politically incorrect in Washington to talk about limits.  There is something against an American ethos because this idea that our possibilities are limitless and we can kind of overcome anything and do anything – that’s part of what makes this country great, but of course we all understand limits.  There are limits on our personal lives.  There are limits on what we can do with the country. 


We have more resources than anyone else by a large margin, but it’s still – that doesn’t mean we can do everything.  And I think President Obama is trying to deal with those tradeoffs and actually open up the debate more and we can talk about those tradeoffs more explicitly.  And that’s caused a lot of controversy because controversy –people can criticism him for apologizing for the United States or not understanding our inherent greatness, or criticizing him for not spending all our resources in one place at the expense of some others.


MR. FONTAINE:  There Obama actually does strike me as most like Eisenhower or H.W. Bush in that respect, which is the open articulation of tradeoffs.  I mean, Eisenhower had to fight his own national security team to argue that the national – that the economy and the national debt was the primary issue – (inaudible) – the Great War and then George H.W. Bush’s case it was more like – (inaudible) – and in that sense I do think that there are some attributes that Obama does share with the two presidents.


I think there’s another issue, I think, with the Obama administration foreign policy, which is in the attempt to avoid overextension of military engagement, the Obama administration has gotten militarily engaged in places it said it didn’t want to get militarily engaged in.  Had it exercised a modest use of even a force with – (inaudible) – training and equipping the Syrian rebels.  We will never know whether that would have made a difference, but – (inaudible). 


And what has resulted in Iraq?  We have roughly the same number of troops that would have been there had a residual force been left.  In Syria, all of the things the president said he didn’t want to do, which is train and equip the rebels and groups on the ground, turn to special operations forces – that has happened.  And in Libya he said he didn’t want to topple the government because that would – (inaudible) – did that as well.  So the impulse to avoid overextension and to marshal and then husband your resources so you can redeploy to the areas of the world and the areas of foreign policy that are most of very strategic importance – (inaudible).  The question is whether that works in practice and to what degree does that work in practice.  Nobody, I think, wants to return to the days of the occupation of Iraq – (inaudible) – but the minimalist approach – (inaudible).


MS. YANG:  Yeah, I mean, you look at Afghanistan, for instance, major campaign promise in pulling out all the U.S. troops from Afghanistan and here are we – (inaudible) – obviously a much smaller number, but people have noted – (inaudible) – become the longest.


Do you think that given that that’s – (inaudible) – fully extract himself from Afghanistan, the next president do we – you know, are we faced with a sense of – (inaudible) – permanent – (inaudible).  However you want to start that.


MR. CHOLLET:  Yeah, so a couple things.  First of all, I just wanted to – (inaudible).  (Bruce ?) is right.  Obama faces a conundrum because on the one hand of the debate he’s criticized for being unwilling to use force, uncomfortable with the use of force, unsure about American power, leadership.  Then on the other side he’s criticized for the overuse of that power – for bombing more countries than George W. Bush, for being too militarily engaged, for willing to use the spying powers of the United States in ways that impinge on folks’ civil liberties.  So he obviously doesn’t easily fit within the categories that the debate wants to put him in – you know, hawk or dove, realist or idealist.  (Inaudible.)


Secondly, this idea that he’s a minimalist – I just – I don’t buy it.  I think that’s – first of all, it shows a bias for a debate to the military side of things and this idea that, like, some minimalism in the Middle East, if it’s not over 10,000 airstrikes against ISIS and 5,000 folks on the ground in Iraq and a few hundred special operators in Syria and over 50,000 U.S. men and women based in the Middle East and all sorts of – if that’s minimalist, if that’s restraint, then what’s maximalist?  Are we measuring – (inaudible) – against 150,000 troops in Iraq?  Like, it seems to me that that – I mean, we can’t make the Iraq period be the norm and then everything from that is like minimalism and restraint and stepping back.  It just doesn’t make sense. 


And so I think – I mean, his argument would be – my argument is if you look across the world in all the strategic arenas that matter to the United States, we’re more – (inaudible) – today than we were – (inaudible).  Right?


MS. YANG:  And in more countries.


MR. CHOLLET:  And in more countries, in different ways.  Absolutely.  I mean, but to get to Afghanistan very quickly, and I think you’ve hit on something that’s very important, which president – (inaudible) – that the sense of like we’re going to – our normal state as a country that’s not at war, that we don’t have troops anywhere engaged in anything difficult – (inaudible) – turns to that.  I’m going to end war.  And he said that over and over.  I’m going to be the president to end wars.  He said the tide of war is receding, over and over.  And clearly that’s not the case. 


The book is, you can tell from the title, it’s a very complimentary book about the president and his overall grand strategy, but this is one area where there’s undoubtedly a criticism because it leaves an impression that somehow we’re returning to this natural state – (inaudible).  I mean, he doesn’t think that we’re going to return to a state where we don’t have to use our military around the world.  What matters is how we can do that in a sustained way and in a way that our other interests can be balanced alongside what we’re doing militarily.  So I don’t think he sees it as a – some kind of a setback to his worldview that we’re going to have to keep – (inaudible) – should keep 10,000 or so troops in Afghanistan to sustain the gains that we’ve made there.  


I think he would argue that’s something that’s necessary to do and something that we can resource and maintain the political support for for years to come.  And he wants to – if you think about it from psychology, this is my sense.  He comes into office and he very fundamentally – (inaudible).  I was on the transition team.  I came in, I was part of getting briefed by the outgoing team on here is the world you are inheriting.  And pretty much everywhere he looked there was a huge problem and there were no easy answers, all right?  And (he thought ?) we were deeply engaged there and we were hemorrhaging every day – resources, leadership capacity, (political will ?).


And so what he’s trying to do for his successor is leave a situation not all clean, but basically where it’s not like – it’s not unsustainable.  Like, you can sustain this.  There is public support for it.  There’s the resources behind it.  We have allies on our side.  We have partners on the ground we can work with.  We can sustain this.  Now, you may decide to change course.  You may decide the pace of success is not high enough so you want to dial up what we’re doing in (those places ?) – (inaudible) – but don’t pretend that doesn’t come with some tradeoffs.  And those tradeoffs are going to be – have to be absorbed somewhere.


And so that’s what I think he’s trying to do and I think he probably will.  My contention – (inaudible) – which I take all of your caveats to heart, which is it’s too early to render a verdict on President Obama’s foreign policy.  My book by the long game is a double meaning.  One is I try to argue that he has a long game that he’s playing.  The other is in history’s long game he will be seen as a consequential president (for the better ?), so I’m leading an opening salvo in that historical argument that will not end in the next six months.  It’s going to be something that we’ll be debating about at the 50th CNAS conference.  (Inaudible.)  (Laughter.)


(Cross talk.)


MR. FONTAINE:  One thing I’ll say that Derek and I have had this debate about sort of the judgment of history, which – (inaudible) – because, you know, I remember at the end of the Bush administration when his approval rating was in the toilet and Iraq was a gigantic mess and on and on and on, and allies – you know, the Europeans didn’t like us and everything.  And the defenders of the administration said, well, look, it may look like a mess now and the poll numbers may not be very good, but that’s ephemeral. 


I mean, the only judgment that really matters is the judgment of history.  Look at Harry Truman.  He left with the worst approval rating of any president of the modern era and – (inaudible) – American foreign policy and so, too, will be George W. Bush.  And now so, too, will be Barack Obama.  Well, maybe. 


So Derek – and everybody should buy Derek’s books – (laughter) – available.


(Cross talk.)


MR. FONTAINE:  This is sincere.  It’s a wonderful and the best articulated defense and it spares no punches because it takes on all of the critiques that one could make about the Obama administration and gives not just the counterargument but sometimes the thinking about – (inaudible) – in retrospect, yeah, you’re probably right.  It didn’t work, but what would you have done differently at the time?  I think is a very valuable contribution to this and I think will be a contribution to the historical debate as well.


But – (inaudible).


MS. YANG:  So – (inaudible) – 2016 a little bit.




MS. YANG:  We’re talking inheritance and we’ve got, you know, two people who are wanting his office, so why – (inaudible)?  And to some extent you can see them as reacting a bit to some of what we’ve been talking about, perhaps – (inaudible) – so why is this idea of Obama is not doing enough and Trump is out there saying how we, our military, has been – (inaudible) – the biggest and the most money and the most resources.  And then you have Hillary Clinton, who is generally a person – (inaudible) – as being hawkish.  (Inaudible) – says that, too.  But some of that – you know, is there a way that some of that is a reaction to a sense of Obama’s approach being perceived – (inaudible) – two candidates who are offering potential alternatives.  Obviously complex and inscrutable in some ways, but still be at least a political reaction to it.


MR. CHOLLET:  You want to start with the premise (then ?)?  (Laughter.)


MR. FONTAINE:  Let me start with – (inaudible) – preempt Derek’s argument that Hillary Clinton is more or less the same as Barak Obama’s foreign policy.  I’m not really in the best position to judge this; however, from what I see is if you had to take her as sort of further to the left or further to the right or in the same place or however you might – (inaudible) – those terms – you know, more minimalist or more maximalist, she’s clearly more supportive of an activist foreign policy and you seem to be more – (inaudible).  Evidence that we have about her supporting – (inaudible) – Syrian rebels and the president decided not to do that, with the no-fly zone in Syria, with an intensification of the fight against ISIS.  On the military side of this, this appears to be where she’s coming from.  And you could say, well, not much of a difference, but it does appear there’s some difference and (it’s clearly not ?) from the other side.


The Trump stuff – I mean, it’s hard to know what his foreign policy would look like because for every position that he’s taken, with the exception of some chestnuts like trade, he seems to have also taken the opposite position at some point and sometimes within the space of a week or so.  So there’s a whole bunch of unknowns with where he comes down.


I would say, though, that I think the sort of sense in Washington and certainly in a number of capitals abroad, for all those who travel quite a bit, is if we can just get to November and Hillary Clinton is elected, 2016 was a crazy year but, man, we’re back to basics in American politics and American foreign policy.  And I don’t think that’s the case.


I think the populist strain in American politics, which has given rise both to Trump and to Sanders in different ways, is here to stay at least for a while and it’s driven by a number of economic and – (inaudible) – and sort of cases sort of change and (the world’s ?) a mess, the economy is a mess, the government is a mess and all – (inaudible) – most obviously on trade.  I mean, the numbers – (inaudible) – all sort of go in the wrong direction.  Things like that.  But people are asking harder questions now about what exactly does America get for its alliances.  What exactly do we get when we deploy the military abroad?  Why isn’t our interest narrowly construed to do the kinds of things in the world that we’ve been doing for 70 years?


And the arguments that appeal to me and probably appeal to all of us about the rules-based international order I don’t think are going to play terribly well, and so there’s going to be a premium put on dealing with this force that I think the Trump and Sanders – (inaudible).


MR. CHOLLET:  I have a little different view that I think the real problem – (inaudible) – and actually what’s interesting to think about Obama and Clinton is they’re more optimistic, too.  And we’ve had this weird role-reversal in American politics where it used to be the Democrats were running down the United States.  You know, we had all these problems that weren’t addressed and unsure about what we were doing in the world.  And now it’s the Democrats – (inaudible) – and Hillary Clinton who feel good about where things are and were saying, hey, everybody buck up.  The world’s tough, but we are better off than any other country right now.  Our economy is better than any other modern industrialized country.  We’re in a better position around the world to solve problems.  We’re using our power in more diverse, sophisticated ways than ever before. 


It’s the Republican side that – and mainly Trump is the perfect manifestation of – and I’m not speaking of folks in this room, but I’m speaking of – (inaudible) – the base has been fed for seven years a narrative that is loosely fact-based – very loosely, right? Where climate change isn’t scientifically proven, there’s a terrorist living next door to you.  You know, Obamacare, after it’s done destroying our economy, is going to kill off your grandparents with a death panel.  You know, the president’s own identity, his own – where he was born to what religion he practices is all being questioned, right?  And so it shouldn’t be surprising that a guy who’s like a master entertainer who is willing kind of say almost anything just drives right through that wide open hole that the debate has left open, OK?


And this is one of the narratives I’ve tried to trace in the book that I think Obama has struggled with and the next president is going to struggle with, and it is foreign policy – (inaudible) – which is one slice of a larger – (inaudible) – and I think, frankly, it’s a corrosive – (inaudible) – and one that makes it harder to think and act strategically and to manage tradeoffs well and – because it’s a debate that has – I mean, I think all president’s struggle with long – (inaudible) – was very hard.  I think it’s just because for a variety of reasons the way our politics has changed, the way the foreign policy community has changed has become even harder, so the comparison I make in the book is this – (inaudible) – finance.


Obama’s been trying to be Warren Buffett and the foreign policy debate is fundamentally a day trading debate where it’s minute-to-minute market fluctuations and you’re trying to react to that to get the most re-tweets or to get folks watching cable news.  And that’s something that Obama has pushed against constantly and has expressed openly his frustration with and it’s very hard to act strategically in that kind of an environment. 


And I think what could be even harder with a Trump-led Republican Party for – (inaudible) – but I think all of us – and Democrats, by the way, are not – (inaudible).  I mean, I’m not trying to say – the Democrats have been part of this as well.  And Lord knows there were a lot of irresponsible things said in the 2008, 2004 cycles by Democrats who were very angry about the Iraq war, very angry about Bush’s foreign policy that did not make strategic thinking – (inaudible) – sort of the stewards of it as we think about the challenges of the next president, because these problems are not going to go away or the importance of strategic thinking and acting strategically – (inaudible) – in the years to come. 


MS. YANG:  We’re going to take any questions.


MR.     :  Time to go home.


Q:  Thank you.  I’m Jim Shirr (ph) at the Wilson Center and a former colleague of Derek’s and thank you both for a very good round of stimulating comments.  Two very quick and – thank you.  Two quick questions that are more of a hawkish, geostrategic character.  First of all, China.  Absolutely clear about its importance.  Chinese have kind of a challenge here.  To their east they are an access denier in that part of the Pacific, but to their west and south they’re an access consumer.  They need access to the rest of Asia, to Africa for sure.  They have economic interdependencies.  How does that play in a larger geostrategic view of China and how might it affect our strategy given the challenges that China faces?


Secondly, and quite a bit differently, the energy revolution – fracking, oil and gas access to us – by us – really changing the landscape.  I mean, Venezuela is looking at going through the floor.  Saudis don’t have as much leverage maybe as they’ve had when the price of oil is so low comparatively.  How might that change policy agenda for the next president?  Thank you. 


 MR. FONTAINE:  I’ll start with China and maybe Derek can talk about the other, or both of you want to.  On China I think it starts with an appreciation – I think the debate over how to deal with China has been a little bit too binary.  We either have they’re on their way to becoming a responsible stakeholder – although there’s fewer and fewer people who sort of believe that that’s happening – or they will never be a responsible stakeholder and therefore they can be opposed because – (inaudible) – alternative institutions like the AIIB and they’re trying to do bad things in the South China Sea and they’re trying to do – (inaudible) – and all these things.  (Inaudible.)  And the reality is China acts very differently depending on the geographic scope – (inaudible) – doing all kinds of things that we don’t want to see China do and that we should actively oppose.  (Inaudible.)


I think global terms there’s a number of places where the United States and China can have – cooperate on climate change, on Iran negotiations, on – (inaudible).  It’s a different kind of relationship that’s extremely complicated for that reason, because when the president goes in to meet with Xi Jinping he doesn’t get to list 1,500 things that he would like to bring up with the Chinese.  He has a finite number.  And so I think the real challenge for the incoming administration is how do you prioritize the issues with China.  You know, if – are we going to make cybersecurity the most important issue or is it South China Sea or is it coercion of Chinese neighbors or is it human rights or is it – what are the things?  All of those things will be on the table, but in what order will we prioritize them and therefore in what order will we (spend ?) our own diplomatic capital and our own efforts against it?


Here I think the United States is on a stronger foot in dealing with China today than it was even a few years ago, and I think the Obama administration deserves a huge amount of credit for the rebalance.  I mean, if you look for a foreign policy that combines both the military side, the economic side, and the diplomatic side and really does take a long game, I think that’s the rebalance to Asia.  And I think the next president should and will build on that – on the military relationships and the increased military power projection capabilities there, hopefully on TPP and economic agreements, on the diplomatic stuff like East Asia summit and ASEAN and all of this – the treaty of amity and cooperation and the U.S. (ambassador to ASEAN ?). 


All of these things together are not going to force the Chinese off the islands.  They’re not going to make China suddenly respect human rights.  They’re not going to make China change its behavior in fundamental ways, but it is kind of prolonging – (inaudible).


MR. CHOLLET:  Yeah, well I completely agree with Richard on first of all the diversity of issues related to China and it’s not – they’re not all confrontational, they’re not all cooperation.  It’s a mix and that mix makes it frustrating for analysts and folks in government trying to understand how best to approach China because depending on your perspective or what you prioritize top, you’re going to be disappointed if they decide to prioritize something different, right?


And I think part of the – (inaudible) – strategy was clearly (very much the ?) idea that not just China’s rise, but the – in the dramatic transformation that we were seeing in the Asian Pacific over the last decade was something that for a variety of reasons the United States was not as involved in as we should have been, across the various instruments of power – military, diplomatic, and – and it is – was a big strategic move by the Obama administration and it’s one that – (inaudible) – could be frustrating because – Jim, you know this – because you can criticize at any given moment for not doing enough because it’s oftentimes hard to see those strategic moves unfold. 


I mean, it’s something we can appreciate 20 years from now, but it’s harder to see in the moment where you measure things day to day and say, well, I don’t see enough happening so it must not be that important.  Or it’s maybe just things like Richard mentioned: joining particular groupings within – diplomatic groupings within the Asia Pacific or sending an ambassador somewhere.  It seems like meetings.  It’s not like action, right?  So therefore oftentimes it can be underappreciated what’s happening.  But I think it’s something that we’ll probably see in the next president – (inaudible) – and certainly see with Secretary Clinton.  Trump – who know?  We see a continuation of policy. 


Very briefly on the energy stuff, clearly that’s been I think one of the more unexpected wins of the last seven years is unexpected – (inaudible) – part of President Obama’s overall goal was to increase energy independence, but I think it’s just taken off in ways that even folks in the administration didn’t expect.  And that’s put us in a good position overall.  Clearly it’s helped our economy.  It’s made us less dependent on some less reliable sources, but it also creates foreign policy challenged because part of what’s behind the concerns in the Middle East about U.S. staying power and the sense of uncertainty about America’s willingness to remain engaged in that area in years to come is fueled by many things, but among them our increasing energy independence.  And there’s a sense of, well, we don’t – we may matter less over time. 


And then it’s compounded by strategic moves like the rebalance, which we all know is a – (inaudible).  Richard and I agree is very, very important, but that unintentionally creates anxieties in some of the parts of the world that it feels they’re on the other end of that rebalance and that – whether that was in Europe or the Middle East, they may be left behind as the United States gets more engaged in the challenges in the Asia Pacific. 


MS. YANG:  (Off mic.)


Q:  Thanks.  Jack Gallow (ph) – (inaudible).  If you look at the – (inaudible) – of Obama – (inaudible) – one might argue that there are some flaws in the (tapestry ?).  But one might characterize the Obama period as one of yes, let’s not do hard – (inaudible) – things in the world.  Let’s be a realist, (while ?) tempered by periodic idealistic impulses, so to speak, and in particular with respect to the doctrine of humanitarian intervention.  So Libya, for example, stands out as one of those impulses.  The decision to – (inaudible) – attack (in ?) Syria – (inaudible).  The criticism would be less (idealism ?) perhaps, but doing them outside of a policy framework and what – (inaudible) – in context and, you know, not thinking through the consequences of those actions.  All right?  In the one case you violate the teapot – (inaudible).  You go in, you make the mess worse, and you leave it and don’t fix it.  And the other case, you know, one might argue that that really hurt us – that strike issue – with Putin later on. 


So I think a fair criticism of Obama might be that we had these periodic impulses.  Maybe that’s explained by the way – (inaudible) – behavior.


MR.     :  I’m sorry, what?


Q:  Model two and three behavior.  You have people – the essence of decision – (inaudible).  OK?


MR.     :  Oh, I see.


Q:  Different parts of the administration could do that.  And the other thing that I think is the – (inaudible) – there’s two sort of impulses.  One towards not getting engaged in messy stuff and, two, sort of periodic humanitarian impulses.  So let’s go into Libya.  Let’s help – you know, let’s get rid of Qaddafi, but let’s leave the messy stuff to someone else.  So I’m curious on your reaction. 


MR. CHOLLET:  Yeah, well, it’s a fair question and actually as Richard pointed out, in the book what I try to do is – and a case like Libya is a great example.  That’s very involved in Libya.  The more I’ve heard about the attempts – (inaudible) – embassy there to try to do what we could to help on the reconstruction side, and no one who was involved in Libya policy – (inaudible) – where Libya is today, including the president.  He’s publicly said many times it’s one of his greatest regrets, right?


So I try in the book to unpack what happened and – (inaudible) – logic of why didn’t we go into Libya?  Was this – you know, why did we do this for those who say, well, we made a huge mistake.  You know, again, what I point out in the book – (inaudible) – is we were looking at a situation in Benghazi where we feared, and there is some argument now in retrospect that our fears were unfounded, but all I can speak to what we were doing at the time.  We hear a humanitarian disaster unfolding there.  There were tens of thousands of Libyans who were going to be massacred by Qaddafi’s troops.  We had Europeans ready to go in who were going to go in with or without us.  We had the Arab League, UN Security Council all pushing to go in. 


And a question from the United States was, are we going to do this or not?  Are we going to be involved in any way or not?  And if we are going to be involved, what we are involved.  And what makes the most sense for trying to solve the problem at hand in Libya, but also makes sense for our overall interests?  And President Obama very purposely designed the U.S. role in that as one in which the U.S. was going to let the Europeans take the lion’s share of the lead and conduct most of the effort.  We were famously leading from behind.  (Inaudible.) 


I was in the White House at the time and one of the people uttered the phrase leading from behind, I can say what the person meant to say, I think, is we were leading from behind the scenes.  We were the ones orchestrating everything.  We were the director and the producer and the writing guy and the key grip and everything else we needed to put on the movie, but we were letting someone else be center stage.  And President Obama believed that’s what mattered most at the time in terms of our operations.  But we shouldn’t fool ourselves that if we had somehow not gotten involved – if we had said, well, that’s not for us, that there wouldn’t have been a catastrophe.  Lord knows what would have happened on the ground, and our allies would have gotten involved and then we would have had a – (inaudible) – would have been nothing.  It would have been not doing anything. 


And it’s interesting if you look back in retrospect, President Obama was criticized for weeks for moving too slowly to get involved.  He was being criticized by former members of the administration, by pretty much everyone on Capitol Hill saying, why are you not doing enough?  And this is why anyone who’s served in government knows it’s kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t thing where, you know, you do something and you get blamed for it and if you don’t do something you’re blamed for it. 


But I think just getting to the heart of your question, which is this idea we’re either involved or we’re not, and it’s this either/or choice, when of course the truth in almost every instance, particularly when it involves military force, is somewhere in between.  And partly it’s because of the tools we have, it’s the footprint we have around the world.  So the question for the president is, how should we engage in a way that makes the most difference to the problem we’re actually trying to solve? 


And President Obama would say over and over again, how is what you’re proposing to me actually going to solve the problem at hand?  And there are many instances where advisors tee up options that may satisfy the op-ed pages, but aren’t actually going to solve the problem.  And – (inaudible) – and so he’s constantly asking for precision, right?  But then also do so in a way that is commensurate with our other interests around the world because the challenge you have in government is – I can pick any particular problem in the world and say, we can do – this is what more we should be doing against that problem, because we have the capability.  It’s not a question of whether or not we have the resources, particularly in the military realm.  The question is, how do we do that specific thing and still try to fulfill all these other goals and interests that we have around the world?


(Inaudible) – Obama actually has a grand strategy.  He never uses the phrase grand strategy.  That’s kind of more of an academic phrase – where you fit all these interests together and make tradeoffs among them.  But he’s got – but most of his critics – (inaudible) – do not.  They may – or they may have one that’s a totally different priority set. 


MR. FONTAINE:  But it is also true that it may be the case that the United States is expending more resources now because we were reluctant to intervene in places – (inaudible) – had things come up to the status quo.  And if you had had a residual force of American troops in Iraq, they might not be fighting right now.  They might not – (inaudible) – rebalance to Asia.


MR. CHOLLET:  But again, his critics, though,


(Cross talk.)


MR. CHOLLET:  It’s all about you should have kept troops in Iraq.


MR. FONTAINE:  Well, I –


(Cross talk.)


MR. CHOLLET:  You should have kept troops in Iraq.  And then if we’d only kept 5,000 guys in Iraq, then none of these problems would have happened.  Now, I say in the book, actually in retrospect we would have been better off if we had kept the 5,000 guys in Iraq for the following reason: we – (inaudible) – it’s unquestionable you would have had better intelligence on what was going on inside Iraq and had a better understanding of the hollowing out of the Iraqi security forces and all of the various things – (inaudible) – do.  But I can’t sit here and say, if we had kept 5,000 guys in Iraq – which we (have ?) the legal guarantees, by the way, that George W. Bush insisted upon to keep a residual force in there during the period 2008 to 2011, all right?  These guys, we would have had to trust Maliki, right, with the legal protections of our forces if we had done that.


But that that would have somehow prevented ISIS, I just – I don’t buy it.  I mean, I think we’ve got the troops there now and they probably are going to be there for a while is my guess.  (Inaudible.)  And that’s a good investment.  In retrospect I think we should have done that differently, but I can’t pretend that that would have solved all of our problems.


Same on the Syria opposition – the arming of the Syrian opposition.  I was for it inside – (inaudible).  Barack Obama – (inaudible) – same position six months later.  I can’t tell you that that six months was the make-or-break period.  I mean, we saw actually how well the six months of training Syrians when DOD was running the program worked.  Not so well.


MR. FONTAINE:  I don’t think the question is – and we should get other questions here – (laughter) – is Derek and I have reflected, when we talk about this, this is emblematic of how the Middle East sucks out all the conversation, all the attention from –


(Cross talk.)


MR. FONTAINE:  – so in a way proves part of Derek’s thesis here, but with Iraq the reality is the political influence that the United States had over the Maliki government disappeared with the last troop leaving and going into Kuwait and within 24 hours Tarik al Hashemi (ph), the vice president, was arrested and Maliki was off governing in a Shi’a chauvinist way that alienated the Sunnis once and for all and then gave rise to populations that saw ISIS as less undesirable than the Shi’a government in Baghdad, which is key to the rise of ISIS. 


And so had we been able to preserve – and of course Iran filled the gap in terms of the political side.  But had we been able to preserve a residual force on the ground that then would have converted into continued political influence over Iraq, I think it is possible that we may have had a different – (inaudible).  Can you prove that?  No, we can’t prove that Libya would have been so much worse off if we hadn’t intervened in Benghazi, so we’re counterfactual – (inaudible, laughter). 


MS. YANG:  (Inaudible.) 


Q:  Hey, my name is Julio Alvarado, U.S. Army – (inaudible).  You and many of my cohorts were security representatives from many Latin American countries here (on course ?).  Maybe you could speak to what are some of the successes and/or failings of this last administration in Latin America, or would it be South America. 


MR. CHOLLET:  Sure, very briefly – hopefully you all agree with this, but I think the U.S. position on Latin America is much better than it was in 2000.  Thinking back to 2009-2010 period when U.S. would attend diplomatic gatherings in Latin America and be seen as an outlier country.  There were of course a variety of reasons, including the price of oil, there were a lot of countries in the region that were seen as ascendant and really enjoyed sticking it to the United States.  Remember at that time all of the poor people were talking about BRICs and of course Brazil was one of the BRICs and how the BRICs were going to take over everything.  And it’s interesting, Goldman Sachs closed down the BRICs fund last year because it wasn’t working out so well.  (Laughter.) 


And so if you look at U.S. – (inaudible) – today and the price of oil helps.  I mean, Brazil is in a massive political crisis.  But a lot of I think the American diplomatic engagement in the region – that’s something that both Secretary Clinton and President Obama were (keen on ?) – trying to reestablish America's diplomatic presence, but then also – (inaudible) – which is dramatically change the political – (inaudible) – of the United States, and so this gets back to – you know, if we look at U.S. foreign policy through – (inaudible) – it’s easy to be very unsatisfied with where things are.  But if you try to look at the totality of America’s interests and our position around the world, Latin America is a great example.  It’s – (inaudible) – for being here because it’s part of the world that doesn’t get a lot of attention in major conferences like this, but it’s a part of the world where the United States is in pretty good shape today.


MR. FONTAINE:  (Off mic.)


MS. YANG:  So let’s get in a last question here. 


Q:  Stanley Kover (ph), the wars that we are involved in now are very different from the ones previously.  They are – (inaudible).  They are wars based on popular hatreds.  The sectarian violence in Iraq.  Insurgencies are not unknown – (inaudible) – but the Iraqis started killing each other and – (inaudible) – and Libyans started killing each other.  Popular hatreds.  How can our armed forces deal with that?  How can you deter conflicts that are based on popular hatreds? 


MR. CHOLLET:  Well, my initial thought is part of the answer is it’s not solely a military effort.  I mean, our folks in uniform who are on the pointy end of the spear – (inaudible) – but there is a military component and certainly when it comes to the ISIS campaign or helping – both in Iraq and Syria helping to eliminate the leadership, disrupting the leadership, degrading over time.  I mean, that’s – there’s a lot of U.S. direct action, military action, that’s part of that.  But that’s not the only way that – (inaudible) – solve the problems.  (Inaudible) – that’s why part of what the administration has been trying to do is – this is a Pentagon term – building up partner capacity.  It’s to help train and equip partners on the ground.  They can ultimately take care of their own security.


And then it’s also filling in behind on the non-military side, and I know that’s one of the big challenges right now in Iraq is, OK, Fallujah gets cleared.  Which it looks like it is.  What comes in behind it and can a place like Fallujah be governed in a way that folks want to stay there, folks want to return there and we don’t see reprisal killings?


Now, that’s something – the U.S. military is not going to be there sitting on that scene, right?  There’s a big difference – (inaudible) – eight years ago.  But it seems to me that that’s kind of a – (inaudible) – said that this is not – this is a military component.  Because of the nature of these conflicts, it’s not something the U.S. military can come in and solve this.  But there is a military component, but it’s not the only component.


MR. FONTAINE:  Yeah, I mean I generally agree with that, but I would probably make it even (starker ?).  I think the military can hold the line, but unless the governance does its job you’re going to have this situation crash and go out of control on the security front – (inaudible) – at some point. 


So why are these kind of hatreds emerge?  It’s not ancient hatreds that go back to Sunni and Shi’a that couldn’t agree whether Ali should be the caliph and they’ve been fighting each other ever since.  That’s just not historically accurate.  I mean, they were living side by side in many of these places as recently as two years ago. 


But when you – you can either have a dictatorship that through sheer repression tries to keep a lid on things, but then you risk it cracking open as – which happened in the Arab Spring all over the place.  Or you can do it with good governance and people think that they can – you know, there’s a government monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, that their political aspirations and grievances are being channeled through a nonviolent system.  It’s a lot harder to get to, but I think ultimately that has to be the answer because if you look at a place – and this is not sort of – (inaudible). 


If you look at a place like Egypt, which is so now internally divided and the answer that the government in Egypt has come up with is through sheer repression, by arresting way more people than Mubarak ever did – I mean, more repressive than Mubarak that we’ll keep a lid on things, we’ll get our security partners involved.  And that’s all fine until it cracks open again.  But you fundamentally have a lack of governance in the Middle East and until you fix that problem then it’s going to continue.  But the question is, who fixes that problem and how do you do it and over what period of time, because there’s no easy answer. 


We cannot just sprinkle good governance on the Middle East.  We’ve tried and it doesn’t work so well.  We can encourage it.  We can support it.  We can promote it.  But ultimately this is one of these long-term things that – (inaudible) – invest in the system, we’re going to have to take on on their own, with support from the United States.


MS. YANG:  OK, with that we’re going to wrap things up.  Thank you so much – (inaudible).  (Applause.)


End Transcript