Professor Geoffrey Garrett, Chief Executive of the US Studies Centre, addressed the impact of the Obama presidency on Australia's policy options regarding the war in Afghanistan at Old Parliament House in Canberra. The workshop was convened by the ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Participants included former generals and senior officials from the Department of Defence as well as Australian and international security policy experts.


It's a real pleasure for me to be here today but I should make an important observation at the beginning. Unlike many people in this room I'm not an expert in national security matters, especially not in an operational sense. So there are two ways I can try to add some value to this session - the first is to say some things at essentially the 10,000ft level about the US and Afghanistan; and the second thing is to be as brief as possible to leave more space for the rest of the conversations, so let me see if I can achieve that.

Let me start at the very highest level, maybe now its 10,000 meters rather than 10,000ft. I think there are some profound ironies in the election of Barack Obama, but to my mind the biggest irony concerns the mismatch between the forces and expectations that got Obama elected and the way he is, and is likely to, govern, Obama rose to prominence as a result of his pristine anti-Iraq credentials plus the fact that he gave a great speech in 2004 at the democratic national convention. He quickly then became a global messiah , with the high-point being the quarter of a million Germans who came to hear him speak in Berlin in July 2008.

This is ironic because most of what we know about the Obama presidency now, as opposed to the Obama candidacy, is that it is going to be much more domestically oriented than anyone would have expected and the world wanted, and that the division of time and effort between economics and national security has tilted much more heavily on the economic side than anyone would have thought.

So here is a person that the world was looking to for a new kind of global leadership. But my sense about the kind of leadership that Barack Obama wants to show the world is a leadership that says ‘I'm going to lead by example at home, fixing my own house', rather than being out there on the world stage building new global coalitions to do new global things. Irrespective of how hard one wants to push that line, it's just clear that the US's focus at the moment, and the president's focus, is obsessively concentrated on domestic economic issues. I was just reading an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this morning, the headline of which is there is a 20% chance that the US is about to enter a depression, not just a recession. My sense is that will focus many minds.

My second point is that if Obama himself is going to be focused more domestically than we might have expected, he knew he had to put together a very experienced international team. I wouldn't suggest that Obama in any sense is out-sourcing foreign policy, but certainly if you look at his team the thing that one immediately notes is that there aren't many Obama-maniacs in the Obama foreign policy team. In fact, the only one who was with Obama from the beginning, who made it to the end, is Susan Rice, Ambassador to the UN.

The Obama foreign policy team is an all-star Clinton plus Republican team. What are they going to do? Well, it seems to me that Obama's Afghanistan policy has more to do with winning an election than with what is the right policy in Afghanistan. Last northern summer, Obama was really facing a challenge: ‘I rode to the democratic nomination on the back of my pristine anti-Iraq credentials but now I've got to convince the establishment and swing voters that I'm tough about national security',

How did he do that? "Less Iraq more Afghanistan". It was the perfect political stratagem. It was the combination of that move plus McCain's problems over ‘the fundamentally sound American economy' followed by the subsequent Lehmann Brothers collapse that ultimately tipped the balance in Obama's favour.

So less Iraq, more Afghanistan made good political sense. The question is - is it good policy? It seems to me that the key question that is now being asked more overtly in the US debate than it has been for a while is -- what is the mission in Afghanistan? And the mission as it is being re-defined doesn't look like the same mission that the US and the allies had in 2001, which had a sort of visceral personal ‘lets get Osama' flavour to it, but against a sort of pretty traditional ‘bad behaviour that isn't punished is rewarded, therefore we must punish bad behaviour' backdrop. The bad behaviour was state sponsorship of terrorism in Afghanistan, so the US and the allies had to retaliate against Afghanistan'.

The problem with that seven years later is, well, you've retaliated, so what are you doing now? The best place to look is the words at Robert Gates and Obama because the comprehensive policy review is apparently ongoing but we don't know what the result of that will be. So what have Gates and Obama said?

I was struck by Secretary of Defense Gates' essay in Foreign Affairs January/February 2009. Here are a couple of quotations from Secretary Gates that I think are interesting and instructive.

"The United States' ability to deal with future threats will depend on its performance in current conflicts. To be blunt, to fail - or to be seen to fail - in either Iraq or Afghanistan, would be a disastrous blow to US credibility both among friends and our allies and among potential enemies."

That's the first line in this Gates essay, it's about credibility, not about winning on the ground, it's about how the world will view how we do.

Then Gate's had something to say about Afghanistan, and the first thing he wanted to say was that in Afghanistan as president Bush announced last September, US troop levels are rising, with the likelihood of more increases in the years ahead. So Obama Afghanistan policy is an extension of Busy policy and of course that in an important sense is personified by the continuation of Gates in his role.

But then Gates says because of its terrain, poverty, neighbourhood and tragic history, Afghanistan in many ways poses a more difficult challenge than Iraq. Now Obama has handed the Afghanistan baton to Richard Holbrooke, and what did he say? Holbrooke said this is much harder than Iraq and we have a big problem which is that we're not so sure we can rely on the Afghani government, in particular Karzai to help us through.

Now we've had the surge announcement by the President. What should we make of that? My sense is that both the President and Secretary Gates have been redefining the mission and reducing expectations about what the goal is, probably with a view to making it easier ultimately for the US to get out of the Afghanistan business.

On NBC's ‘Meet the Press' last Sunday, Gates said that the goal in Afghanistan was a level of stability which at least prevents it from being a safe haven from which plots against the US, the Europeans and other can be put together. I don't know what makes something a safe haven against terrorism but it certainly doesn't sound like victory.

A couple of days later, President Obama was on the PBS Jim Lehrer News Hour and he said that he agreed with what Secretary Gates said on Sunday. But he added that this goal requires the entire arsenal of American power: ‘we've been thinking very militarily but we haven't been as effective thinking diplomatically, we haven't been thinking very effectively about the development side of the equation'.

That reminds me of Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearings, where she wanted to sell more Joe Nye books by referring to ‘smart power' as often as she could. If you are a US Democrat trying to shore up your national security credentials, you can't embrace ‘soft power'. But you can certainly have ‘smart power'.

What is smart re: Afghanistan policy? The first element seems to be putting more heat on Karzai. But I'm not sure that's so smart unless you know what the alternative to Karzai is, and I don't know whether anyone knows what the alternative is. Second what's smart in Afghanistan is to say that since all the allies agreed that this was a ‘right war', its time for the US to ask the allies to deliver on their commitment that Afghanistan is the right war.

The third thing that's smart is probably to say that the surge is a temporary thing, not a permanent thing. We're doing the surge to try and create some stability that will allow us to do a serious policy rethink about Afghanistan - and that's the way that the surge is being spun.

If you put all this together, what do you think about the future? I wouldn't presume to get inside the President's head in terms of what his gut instinct is on Afghanistan. But I would make three structural observations about the US that have obtained in Iraq and will obtain with respect to Afghanistan it seems to me.

The US people are sick and tired of war. The military is over-stretched. The country is going bankrupt.

Those three facts were the pressure points that led to a get out of Iraq policy being the winning policy in the US. This is what happened re Iraq. People reasoned, we've got to figure out a way to get out of Iraq that doesn't look like a Vietnam from the rooftops exit, and the fact that things have stabilised on the ground in Iraq is fantastic.

The American public hasn't been thinking about Afghanistan at all. It was all Iraq all the time for several years. And now it has been followed by myopic focus on the economy. I think you have to expect in political terms that as the American public comes to understand what a real sustained commitment in Afghanistan would be, political support for that sustained commitment will only go down.

So if you think that's right, if you think President Obama needs to execute his exit from Iraq deftly, if he needs to deal with economic problems at home and abroad and he is committed to a surge in Afghanistan, how would you execute all of that?

Well, it comes to the point of this meeting. Obama will say to his friends and allies abroad, this is the right policy, but we're going to need a lot of help.

I wouldn't presume to speak for the NATO allies. But I would just make a couple of observations about the northern hemisphere. The first one is that my understanding is that Canadian politics has been torn apart by the Afghanistan war for many years. And that there is a wing of the Prime Minister's party that says foreign entanglements are bad and that we should certainly be out. So my reading of the tea-leaves is that asking for more heavy lifting from Canada in Afghanistan is a tall order.

Second, and I think this was true before the economic crisis, but it's surely more true today --even if Angela Merkel and her side of the government in Germany would like to be committed to do more in Afghanistan, German politics just won't sustain that. I was in Berlin less than twelve months ago as part of an American delegation. The view coming from the Germans was please don't ask us to do more in Afghanistan, because there are only two outcomes: either we don't do it and we get embarrassed publically, or we do it and we lose power domestically. That's not an attractive pair of options. Gordon Brown isn't Tony Blair when it comes to the war on terrorism. But in addition, Gordon Brown has now staked his political future on the G20 and solving the economic crisis. It is hard to imagine Gordon Brown playing a Tony Blair like role in saying Afghanistan is the right thing to do even if the British people are opposed.

I'd be happy to be pleasantly surprised about the northern hemisphere. But you go through the list and you get to Australia pretty quickly it seems to me. I'm going to end my remarks right there.