JAMES TRAUB: Good evening. I'm James Traub. Welcome to the Carnegie Council's Ethics Matter series.
Our guest tonight is the law scholar, foreign policy pundit, public servant Rosa Brooks. From 2009 to 2011, Rosa was counselor to the under secretary of defense, where she also had a special focus on the rule of law and humanitarian policy. Rosa now teaches at Georgetown Law School, and she's a colleague of mine at Foreign Policy, where she has also, by the way, helped to diversify what had previously been an all-male, or almost all-male, bastion.
Rosa, thank you so much for being here tonight.
ROSA BROOKS: Good to be here, Jim.
JAMES TRAUB: I want to ask you a little bit just about your background. Your mother is the famous Barbara Ehrenreich, who is a great crusader for justice, a famous writer; I now know from her recent memoir, a kind of ruthless rationalist. Did that predispose you towards the kinds of human rights and humanitarian issues that have been a focus of your career?
ROSA BROOKS: Probably, yes. My mother is a writer and a social activist. My stepfather is a union organizer. My mother and father met as anti-war activists in the 1960s. A little bit odd that I ended up working in the Pentagon and marrying a military officer.
JAMES TRAUB: Was that an act of rebellion on your part?
ROSA BROOKS: I don't think so. But my mother came to my farewell ceremony when I left the Pentagon, and it was actually very sweet. I said during the ceremony the same thing I'll say to you, which is that my mother certainly taught me that it was always important to be trying to make the world a little bit better, that that's what you had to do. So I think that ethos certainly permeated our household. That's what it was about. You were not put here on Earth in order to get rich or be happy; you were put here on Earth to make the world better.
It is a little bit ruthless at times. But it certainly was very powerful.
JAMES TRAUB: So did you go to law school thinking you would do this kind of stuff or did you just go to law school because, if you don't know what to do with yourself, you go to law school?
ROSA BROOKS: I went to law school because if you don't know what to do with yourself, you go to law school, and a lot of my friends were going to law school. I drifted into human rights by accident. I thought I would work on domestic social policy issues or maybe be a public defender. I didn't go in thinking that I was going to work on international issues at all.
JAMES TRAUB: And was the public service thing part of what you previously intended—
ROSA BROOKS: Definitely.
JAMES TRAUB: You wanted to go into government.
ROSA BROOKS: Yes. When I was an undergraduate, I was very involved in our undergraduate community service organization. That was my thing as an undergrad. I more or less lived at the public service—
JAMES TRAUB: Phillips Brooks House.
ROSA BROOKS: Phillips Brooks House, yes. And when I was in law school—
JAMES TRAUB: At Harvard, in case we haven't made that clear.
ROSA BROOKS: That was my thing when I was in college. Then when I was in law school, I took a lot of different clinics—community legal services clinic, poverty legal services clinic, landlord-tenant clinic. So I thought that was the kind of work I was going to do.
I had a South African boyfriend at the time. I really wanted to go spend the summer in South Africa, because at that point we were pretty serious. We were talking about maybe living together, getting married. He really wanted to stay in South Africa. I thought, "Oh, I don't know if I could do that." But I wanted to go see what it was like. It was very expensive to go to South Africa. The flight was much more than I could afford at that time in my impoverished student life. I looked around and I thought, "Hmm, maybe there's some source of funding here at the law school for this."
Sure enough, there was a human rights summer fellowship you could apply for. I thought, well, human rights; they've got some human rights issues in South Africa.
JAMES TRAUB: Wow, this was a deep moral commitment on your part.
ROSA BROOKS: This was in 1993 or 1994. So I applied, with a fairly trumped-up proposal, and I got the money. I went off to South Africa for the summer, and I worked on prisoners' rights issues and domestic violence issues. I broke up with the boyfriend, but fell in love with human rights work.
JAMES TRAUB: Harold Koh was one of our guests a few months ago. Rosa worked with him at Yale. Then you worked with him in the Clinton administration. What were the issues that you were working with during that Clinton period?
ROSA BROOKS: A lot of work on Kosovo—that was the big issue of the time—and on the Sierra Leone Civil War. Harold—at that time, he was the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, which was not a legal position; it was a policy position. But, of course, as a law professor, Harold felt that he was a better lawyer than the people who did have the legal jobs at the State Department, so he hired a bunch of law students of his, myself among them, and our job was essentially to run around and fight with the people who were supposed to be doing the legal work at State. They hated us. They just hated us.
But I thought we were able to make a difference. We did a big project on reforming Kosovo's post-conflict judicial system. We really helped create what became the special court for Sierra Leone to try war crimes, other atrocities that occurred during the civil war, a very brutal civil war—people's limbs being chopped off, that kind of horrible stuff.
It got me out there in a way that was sometimes exciting, sometimes terrifying.
JAMES TRAUB: But I realize from listening to you that the job that you then had at the Pentagon—that was the aberrational thing. It's not the thing you would have predicted from your career trajectory, though I guess you just mentioned the fact that you are married to a Special Forces officer. Was that part of what interested you in military issues or that's nothing to do with it?
ROSA BROOKS: No, no. I drifted in—you can always make your life look like it makes sense in hindsight; I could construct a story that makes all this make perfect sense and look like a plan, but, of course, it wasn't—the same way I had somewhat drifted into human rights.
The State Department job got me very interested in post-conflict reconstruction issues. Almost by definition, when you're looking at post-conflict issues, the military, one way or another—whether it's the U.S. military or the militaries of other states—tends to play a role, for better or for worse, in shaping that post-conflict environment, just as they shaped the conflict environment. Working on those Kosovo projects in particular brought me into contact with a lot of military lawyers working on judicial and legal system reconstruction.
Then 9/11 happened, and my human rights background, combined with my legal background—I became sort of a law of war/law of armed conflict expert. At the time there were so few people who focused on those things, the threshold for expertise was really, really low.
JAMES TRAUB: So say you.
ROSA BROOKS: It has changed now. But there were not a lot of people doing that work at that time. In fact, international law at the time—most law schools had maybe one person on the faculty who did international law. It was seen as sort of a fringe, boutique thing that students didn't really need to know about. That has changed just dramatically since 9/11. But certainly at the time it was more obscure.
So I sort of drifted into writing about rule of law after military interventions. That led, indirectly, eventually to the Pentagon, although in a policy job.
JAMES TRAUB: Let me ask you first about this post-conflict stuff, because it seems to me we're in a phase now where people have almost completely lost faith in this thing that is called post-conflict reconstruction. Now that is taken as a kind of giant act of naïveté, which we have now seen has failed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
ROSA BROOKS: Well, in Afghanistan and Iraq, we never got to the post.
JAMES TRAUB: Yes, though the whole institution—anyway, without my making a statement, but rather asking you a question, what's your sense of the extent to which—because, after all, the Clinton administration was thinking about this a great deal—what's your sense of the extent to which this thing is necessary to do, can be done? Is America naïve about this or what?
ROSA BROOKS: All of the above. I think it's often necessary. More can be done than skeptics think; less can be done than the idealists, both on the neocon side and on the liberal side, I think. And America is completely naïve about it. We oscillate between "Oh, there's no point; it's stupid, it's hopeless, it's a waste of time and money," and thinking that we will radically reshape other cultures in a couple of months with a few million bucks.
I've certainly come to the view that we have to be very humble about it and that, frankly, whether we're talking about rebuilding rule-of-law institutions or governance institutions or almost anything, probably the right approach to take is to say to yourself, "Let's imagine that, whatever it is that I do here, the funding will run out in one year and the political will will run out in one year and any foreigners involved in this will be recalled back home or go back home in one year. What, if anything, could we do that would still have left behind—do more good than harm?"
JAMES TRAUB: That's a tough bar to cross.
ROSA BROOKS: Actually I don't think it is, because I think it pushes you in the direction of thinking smaller and it pushes you in the direction of really focusing on the fact that you won't be there to see it through, that it's going to be the people who live there who will have to see it through.
I think if we reformulate our thinking that way, actually there are things that can make a big difference, not in a sort of sweeping, dramatic way, but in a small way that still matters.
Jim, you've worked in many both developing countries and in post-conflict situations. Although I think it's right to have a healthy skepticism about the grandiosity of many of our claims, I also think that we very often encounter situations where you talk to local community groups and they say, "We're really suffering here. We have an idea. If we could get this one thing, we think it would make a difference," and they're right, and a little can, in fact, go a long way. So finding those opportunities where a little does go a long way I think is hard, but not impossible.
JAMES TRAUB: Can you think of the places that you were working with—we're now going back to the Clinton period, not now, Kosovo, Haiti, and so forth—are there places where you would say, "Yes, we made some mistakes, but, net, we kind of got it right," or, "We really did real good"?
ROSA BROOKS: I think Kosovo is one of those places. It's not Sweden. It's not Switzerland—
JAMES TRAUB: I was going to say, it's not a Jeffersonian democracy.
ROSA BROOKS: But it's better than it would have been, I think. It's better than it would have been.
In addition to the work at the State Department, right in that same period I worked for Human Rights Watch for a while. I worked giving out other people's money, particularly giving out George Soros's money for a while for the Open Society Foundation. One of my favorite programs I worked with, for all time—this was right after the State Department job—I convinced George Soros and other folks at his foundation that in Sierra Leone we should give out micro-grants, by which I mean grants of $25, $50. I felt like one of those CIA agents. I had this walking-around money.
We were working with community groups that were so tiny they didn't have bank accounts often. We had to help them figure out how to open a bank account. They could not absorb the $50,000, $100,000 grants that most of the big international foundations wanted to give, but they were often the tiny little groups that were actually quite well placed. Fifty dollars could go a pretty long way in war-torn Sierra Leone in 2000, 2001. So some of these little—literally, they were to do things like clean up the street, make the toilet work kind of stuff. Yes, it's small, but on the other hand, the difference in people's day-to-day lives of $25 or $50 at the right moment in the right place—it's pretty significant.
That was actually a lot of fun and very, very gratifying. Think about such tiny bits of money.
JAMES TRAUB: It's, of course, hard for Americans to do small things. We're more like Afghanistan. We come in and pour in a billion dollars in agricultural assistance, and soon we've just corrupted the economy.
ROSA BROOKS: That was the challenge at the Open Society Foundation: How do we run a program where the amounts of money are this tiny? We're not built to do this.
JAMES TRAUB: Let's move forward to your time in the Pentagon. You were there during this tremendous period of upheaval over things like counterinsurgency [COIN] and so forth. This obviously came from the military. It was David Petraeus and others who were saying, "We need this new doctrine," which has proved terribly controversial, inside the military and elsewhere.
A couple of things I was wondering about. One is—I don't know if you a have any insight on this question—there is this retrospective sense that Petraeus and McChrystal kind of rolled Obama on this question when they said, "You know what? We can really win in Afghanistan if we adopt this new policy with civilians and the military, this thing called counterinsurgency," and that Obama was really skeptical, but in the end said, "You're the generals. Okay."
Is that a fair rendition? What's your sense?
ROSA BROOKS: I don't think it is. No, I don't think that's an entirely fair narrative. Remember that President Obama campaigned on getting it right in Afghanistan. That was his slogan: "We took our eye off the ball. We went to Iraq. I'm going to do it right in Afghanistan." And as soon as he came into office, he commissioned an inter-agency review of the Afghanistan strategy. Michèle Flournoy, Richard Holbrooke, and Bruce Riedel, two of the three not being connected in any way with the Pentagon—
JAMES TRAUB: Michèle Flournoy was Rosa's boss, under secretary of defense for policy.
ROSA BROOKS: Yes. And they—this was before Michèle was in that job—came up with a very ambitious approach, which the president signed off on. I think when the bill came due—this is a whole different issue, which we can talk about if you would like to, in terms of civilian-military misunderstandings. But I think part of what happened—McChrystal essentially was told, "Okay, go figure out what it would take to make this strategy that I have just adopted work."
So he comes back and says, "Well, Mr. President, it's going to take 8 billion troops," and the White House goes, "No. Please give us a better number. We don't like that number. That's too high."
I think that, from the military perspective, it was, "If you want a different answer, ask a different question. You asked us what will it take to make this strategy work. My best military advice is, if you want this"—they didn't say to him, "Go tell us if you think this strategy makes sense," or, "Go tell us if it's worth it."
I think there was some talking past each other there. But I certainly don't think it was an issue of the president getting rolled. I think it was more that he had a little bit of buyer's remorse for the strategy he purchased, and meanwhile, some real misunderstandings between the military brass and the civilian leadership and the White House about what it was they were each being asked to do and what their respective lanes were.
JAMES TRAUB: Is your sense, then, that it could have worked if Obama had been willing to give McChrystal what he wanted? Or was it a mistake to be asking for that in the first place?
ROSA BROOKS: That's a really hard question. I don't know.
JAMES TRAUB: Make believe you did, though.
ROSA BROOKS: I wish I knew. I think if you had asked me then, I would have said they never fully resourced it. They never did fully resource this strategy. They said, "We're going to try this ambitious strategy," but then they kind of said, "But we're going to try to do it on the cheap in a somewhat arbitrary way. We're going to kind of"—in the Pentagon they like to use this term—"salami-slice it." Instead of saying, "Wait a second. How do we scale down this plan in a way that makes sense?" they just kind of, "Let's shave everything by 20 percent," which doesn't actually make sense, because there are tipping points with some of the so-called enablers, like intelligence and so on, where if you just slice everything equally, you end up with something that doesn't work. But that's kind of what they did.
So on the one hand, I think they didn't really give it a chance, in a sense. Secretary Robert Gates's recent memoir is very scathing about this and essentially says the president never had faith in the strategy, so why was he doing it? If you don't have faith in it, don't do it. I think the answer to that is obvious: If you're the president, you feel like politically you can't afford to say, "Oh, you know that thing I said about finishing the job in Afghanistan? Well, I've decided it's really just not worth it," which I think is where he was, and in hindsight, that may have been the right place to be.
JAMES TRAUB: You're saying he could not afford to say politically what he actually believed in his heart.
ROSA BROOKS: Yes, I think that's right.
JAMES TRAUB: That's my sense as well.
ROSA BROOKS: I think that's right. I think at the time he sort of saw that price tag in money and in troop numbers, he was thinking, "Gosh, is this really that important to our national security? I'm not sure it is." But no president is going to go on television and say, "Hey, folks, just kidding about finishing the job. I changed my mind. We don't need to do that. The job doesn't matter so much."
In hindsight, it may be that we should have said in 2009 or so, "Gee, Afghanistan, we're going to give you tons and tons of foreign aid to help you, but we're basically withdrawing." I don't know. I wish I knew.
JAMES TRAUB: It's strange that now this idea that was so in vogue, this counterinsurgency thing that people like me were writing good things about—now it has become the tag line of a joke or something. Has the military worked its way through this thing and now it's yesterday's doctrine or is it being too quickly discarded?
ROSA BROOKS: I don't think it was a new doctrine and I don't think we've seen the last of it. I think that the great pendulum swing of American politics—and the military, just as much as any group of high school kids, also follows the latest trend—remember George W. Bush in the 2000 election campaign saying, "No more nation building"? Then after 9/11, we embarked on two extraordinarily ambitious and expensive nation-building projects. I think "no more this, no more that" are famous last words. After Vietnam, we said, "Oh, no more land wars." Well, guess what? We had two more.
We're now back in another moment in American history where we're saying, "Oh, we're never going to do that again." Uh-uh, nope.
I think 30 years from now we will have another land war of some sort. Maybe we shouldn't, but we probably will, because we're dumb and we always forget what we promised not to do.
JAMES TRAUB: Well, and we also just believe in ourselves too much.
ROSA BROOKS: We believe in ourselves too much and we have very short memories.
JAMES TRAUB: You just wrote a piece on the cover of the previous issue of Foreign Policy magazine, which is part of a book you're writing, about how the military is configuring itself in this new world. That piece was about what are called regionally aligned forces, which is this new idea that the military has. You were sort of jokingly saying it's a totally confused idea, and that's probably a good thing because that way it satisfies lots of different bureaucratic constituents and everybody can make believe it's what they think.
I couldn't tell from reading it if you actually thought that or you were basically saying this is the irony of a badly planned-out policy whose only virtue is that it lets everybody imagine that it is what they think it is.
ROSA BROOKS: A little bit of both. This is really talking about the Army. The Army in particular is at a moment now when it's kind of going, "Gosh, what do we do? What is the United States Army for?" It comes out of the same moment. The Iraq War is over, draw-down in Afghanistan. The pendulum has swung to where everybody's thinking that we're never going to do that again, so what do we need all these soldiers for? We're not going to have any more of those wars.
We're going to have drone strikes. We're going to have cyber. We're going to have these high-tech things—
JAMES TRAUB: Also the pivot to Asia means Navy and Air Force.
ROSA BROOKS: We're going to pivot. We're going to do high-tech—
JAMES TRAUB: Coastal things.
ROSA BROOKS: Maybe Air Force stuff. So we don't need all these guys with muddy boots and big rucksacks anymore.
The Army, of course, is kind of going, "Oh, wait, wait, wait. Yes, you do still need us." And the whole regionally aligned forces concept for the Army is, in part, a way to say, "You do still need us, folks." The concept is essentially, "Look, you can have all these fancy high-tech things that you want"—a theoretical that I think is completely right—"but if you don't understand what's going on all around the world, it will get you nowhere. You need to have human relationships. You need to know people, and to get to know people, you need to have"—
JAMES TRAUB: And that is part of COIN doctrine, by the way, as well, very much, right?
ROSA BROOKS: Yes. "And if you want to get to know people, you have to have human beings on the ground talking to other human beings. You can't do that from the simulated cockpit of a drone. You have to be out there, and only the Army does that with the guys that stomp around on the ground. So we're going to have this initiative, the regionally aligned forces concept. We're going to have greater emphasis and training on cultural knowledge, linguistic knowledge. We're going to be focusing on building relationships."
In theory, it's a great idea, right? The trouble is, of course, there is, not a total, but a very substantial mismatch between the goals and the nature of the Army, which still consists very largely of 18-to-26-year-old males, not a demographic famed for its intercultural savvy and sophistication and good judgment. The Army, like all the military services, is a slow-moving bureaucracy, which has a really, really, really hard time changing. It's the proverbial aircraft carrier: It doesn't turn fast.
The focus of the article is, good idea in theory; in practice, somewhere between a tiny bit better and kind of a mess.
But that being said, as you noted, there's a sense in which it is being sold in every possible way to multiple different audiences. If you're a neocon or a liberal interventionist, you say, "Look, we're going to be everywhere. We're going to have our tentacles all over the place. Isn't that great?" If you're an isolationist, it's being sold as, "Don't worry. We're going to be focusing on building relationships and training other people's military so we don't have to fight wars anymore. Isn't that great?" And they go, "That's great."
So there are all sorts of ways in which this is kind of being packaged. The same not very substantial thing is being packaged in a way to make it appealing to everyone, although it remains to be seen—even that may not be enough at this moment of budget cutting to save the Army.
JAMES TRAUB: There is, by the way, an incredibly funny but also pitiful moment in your article where Rosa is talking to a public affairs officer on a base in Kuwait and says she wants to go out and meet Kuwaitis. The woman is perplexed. "What do you want to meet Kuwaitis for?" Then later you're at a reception given by Kuwaitis. They have local cuisine, and the woman says, "I don't like cultural food."
"Cultural food"—it just made your heart break. You think, how can this country, which we are—this is on a continent—actually successfully apply itself to places 10,000 miles away of which we know nothing?
ROSA BROOKS: And the thing that always kind of blows my mind is that this is an incredibly diverse country. In our own population, people speak so many languages, so much cultural knowledge from other places—relatives, friends in other countries. We do such a bad job at tapping that sort of collective intelligence and sophistication in any coherent way. There's just a sort of total mismatch between the talent pool, which in some ways, I think, in terms of America's cultural exports—not that I want to have to defend every American cultural export, Britney Spears, for instance—
JAMES TRAUB: Do you think she's a force for bad? Is that what you're saying?
ROSA BROOKS: But the American—
JAMES TRAUB: Rosa Brooks says Britney Spears is a force for bad.
ROSA BROOKS: Clearly a force for evil, manifestly.
JAMES TRAUB: You heard it here first.
ROSA BROOKS: We are so smart in some ways at connecting with other people all over the world and so dumb in other ways that it's just mind-blowing.
JAMES TRAUB: Let me change the subject a little bit. You're a woman who worked for a woman in the Pentagon. People assume, Pentagon, world's most male environment and it must be a terrible place to work for a woman.
What, in fact, was your experience like?
ROSA BROOKS: I think it's getting a lot better. On the one hand, I was constantly one of the only one or two women in the room or the only woman in a room full of men, meeting after meeting. That being said, I think, partly because of the nature of the wars of the last decade, decade and a half now, a lot of those old stereotypes and barriers have broken down.
As everyone knows, there's really not a front line in these wars, and one of the things that meant was that—you could say women don't go into combat roles, but guess what? They were getting shot at and they were shooting back.
I think that particularly for a younger generation of military officers, the concept of "women can't do this stuff" just wasn't there anymore. I think we also saw that for gays and lesbians. It was amazing to me that the ending of "Don't ask, don't tell" was such a non-issue. When you're being shot at and you're in danger, nobody cares.
So on the one hand, it certainly felt like—as I said, I was keenly aware, I'd look around the room and kind of go, "Gosh"
JAMES TRAUB: You weren't being kind of politely condescended to?
ROSA BROOKS: No. Every now and then there would be something, but for the most part, it was actually a very easy and pleasant working environment—much more so, in fact, than the State Department had been. Partly that may be because when I worked at the State Department, I was in my late 20s and it felt like a constant battle to be taken seriously. So maybe it's just that I'm older. It could just be age.
JAMES TRAUB: You have more gravitas perhaps than you had then.
ROSA BROOKS: Right, I have more gravitas. But it was readjustment to go from the Pentagon back to Georgetown, go from being—I'd say something like, "I think we ought to do such-and-such," and they'd go, "Yes, ma'am!" Then I go back to Georgetown and I'd say, "Guys, we should do this," and my students would look at me like . . .
JAMES TRAUB: Not to mention academic administrations, which are really not built for effectiveness.
ROSA BROOKS: Nor, it turns out, is much of the U.S. military. But that's a different story.
JAMES TRAUB: I want to ask you a little bit about the Obama administration before we get to that. There's now this growing sense—it's becoming almost consensual—that Obama turns out to be irresolute, he doesn't have an overarching sense of purpose, he's too naïve, and in the end, he has been an ineffective foreign policy president. What's your judgment?
ROSA BROOKS: I don't think he's irresolute and I don't think he's naïve. But I don't think he's very interested in foreign policy either, and I don't think there's an overarching theory in particular.
I think he's a very smart guy. I think that he really just isn't that interested, and so he, day-to-day, delegated a lot of it to staff, who weren't so great. A lot of dumb decisions got made or decisions that should have been made didn't get made, and then—
JAMES TRAUB: What would be, from your point of view, the headline dumb decisions?
ROSA BROOKS: Oh, golly. I do think that the Afghanistan—either do it or don't do it. But the "let's do it in a way that we know won't work because we know we're doing it halfway"—I think that was up there.
I think that missing what short window there was to do something useful in Syria was probably also up there, and—
JAMES TRAUB: Are you one who would say the United States should have acted more robustly in terms of aiding the moderate rebels?
ROSA BROOKS: Early, early. I think we then missed that window and then it became something that was destructive rather than helpful. I think that a set of policies that at one point could have maybe been useful shifted to not so much.
JAMES TRAUB: So now you would say there's almost no good policy?
ROSA BROOKS: I sure don't know one.
But I also think that, as he said a week or so ago in his speech at West Point, "I've ended two wars," or, "I ended one and I'm about to end the other." He warned—he gives great speeches—he warned against an overreliance on military power. And that's quite right.
But what he didn't talk about very much was that we have a third war, which is a largely covert war, via, largely, drones and a little bit of special operations, raids, thrown in there for good measure, which I think we are absolutely over-relying on, to our detriment. I think strategically it's self-destructive, and as a human rights and rule-of-law person, I think it's quite shocking that the Obama administration is, in effect, saying, "Hey, we can kill anybody anywhere for reasons that we won't make public."
JAMES TRAUB: Have you had that conversation with your former boss, Harold Koh?
ROSA BROOKS: I have. We disagree about this. Harold, I think, absolutely feels there needs to be more transparency and more accountability. But we somewhat disagree on this.
But no, I think that, too, in a way, is a reflection of the president. He's not really a foreign policy guy, and this is kind of the easy, opportunistic way to approach it.
JAMES TRAUB: But when he was running in 2007, he always talked about putting a new face on America in terms of how the world sees the United States, that he was going to go to the Middle East, as he did, and show that America was different. He had visionary goals on nonproliferation, on climate change, on energy, on making the international architecture—all that stuff. So it seems surprising that he is as indifferent to the world, or as little interested in the world, as you're describing.
ROSA BROOKS: I think the other piece of it, though, is something that he didn't fully appreciate, that he may appreciate more now, I didn't fully appreciate, I think a lot of people didn't fully appreciate. Hillary Clinton is sitting there somewhere saying, "I told you so." But he had an inexperienced crew, and the people he brought in, his inner circle on foreign policy certainly early on, were largely folks from his campaign and from the Hill. The executive branch of the United States government, as you know, is this hugely complicated beast, which takes a long time to even begin to understand. I certainly feel like, after however many years in and out of the government, I'm still only beginning to understand how it works, how it doesn't work, what the levers are that make things happen.
I think part of it was just that he had a young, inexperienced staff, and they didn't know how to translate—they didn't understand that announcing a policy doesn't mean anything changes, that you have to have a real plan for working with this very sluggish bureaucracy to implement it.
A classic example of this: After the president's Cairo speech—I think you were referring to that a moment ago. He gives this speech, he says, to transform our relationship with the Middle East and Arab and Islamic worlds, and we're going to have entrepreneurship and cultural exchanges and health and science exchanges. It's going to be great. And everybody said, "Yay, what a great speech! This is so transformative. We're so excited." And calls started coming into the White House, people saying—both foreigners and Americans, corporate folks, NGOs—"How can we help? We want to help." "Hi, I run a dot-com. I've got a ton of money. How do I help?" Or, "Hi, we're the government of such-and-such. We want to help. What can we do?"
The White House staff for that effort consisted of about three people, all under the age of 30, and they did a sort of collective, "We'll get back to you."
So part of it is just that. I have to say mea culpa ("my fault") here. I was a columnist for the Los Angeles Times from 2005 to 2009, and I was a fierce Obama partisan—
JAMES TRAUB: Me, too.
ROSA BROOKS: And I was saying, "People are saying he's inexperienced. It doesn't matter. He's so smart. He's so great." And I regret it. I think I, too, radically underestimated the importance of boring experience, even in the corrupt—the whole idea that he was going to be this breath of fresh air, which I completely bought, like so many millions of other Americans. And it turned out that the problem was indeed exactly as Hillary had predicted.
JAMES TRAUB: So do you think since we're going to be hearing a lot about Hillary, in fact, in the next few days because she's having her book roll-out, she's speaking with the Council on Foreign Relations, and so on, do you think either (a) that Hillary would have been different or (b), since she may be our next president, that she will be different?
ROSA BROOKS: You know, I'm actually thinking of writing a column this week—you heard it here first—saying, "Yes, Hillary would have been a better president."
JAMES TRAUB: Really. Tell us more.
ROSA BROOKS: I think I've come around to thinking that. I'm still not crazy about her, but for exactly that reason. I think that she learned the hard way. She went from being—remember back in the old days when people had bumper stickers on their cars that said, "I voted for Hillary's husband"? She was perceived as a little wild and crazy. She didn't fit into Washington. She got slammed for it. She really got attacked. She went into her shell and she came out a newer, harder, more brittle Hillary inside, with a harder shell on the outside. And it wasn't a terribly appealing package.
But she worked like crazy to learn how to do politics. She just sort of worked and worked and worked at it. It was not a very lovable transformation, but I think that she—
JAMES TRAUB: She wasn't that lovable before.
ROSA BROOKS: I kind of liked her. I liked her before. I was disappointed by the transformation.
But I think, in hindsight, she learned a lot of painful lessons about how politics works. On the one hand, that was what I and many other people didn't like about her back in 2007-2008. She seemed like she would just say whatever it took to get there. In hindsight, I think, well, it's actually kind of useful to have someone who will do what it takes to get there, wherever the "there" is, because I don't think Obama really quite knew how. He was wafted to power so rapidly.
Do I think that she would have made a historic, Jeffersonian, Lincoln-like president? No. But do I think she probably would have been a somewhat better president? In hindsight, yes.
JAMES TRAUB: Great. All right. Thank you.
ROSA BROOKS: And this is, by the way, why I will never get another job in any administration.
JAMES TRAUB: Unless it's the Hillary Clinton administration, where you've just come out and said, "You go, girl." So don't speak so quickly on that.
ROSA BROOKS: I'm not sure she would quite read it that way.
QUESTION: My name is Susan Gitelson.
You are so refreshing. In the emperor's-new-clothes approach, you tell it the way it is, and you're self-deprecating. That's wonderful.
Going back to the earlier part on conflict resolution and human rights, how do you feel America can deal with genocide, as in Rwanda, as in Cambodia, as in so many other places, and really encourage the rule of law? What can we do to make the world a better place? You're not that cynical yet. When you're out there, what do you think we can do?
ROSA BROOKS: This is actually an area where, despite not being particularly thrilled with what has happened in Syria, I actually think the administration has made some real progress. I give Samantha Power some credit for that. I give, actually, our office at the Pentagon some credit for that.
The internal mechanism for early warning has improved dramatically. Part of it is just that. Part of it is developing—and this goes back to the point about Hillary Clinton versus Obama—the importance of structure and process. You can say, "We will stop genocide," but if you don't have any internal process to even flag the signs, the early warning signs, it's going to be really hard to do. I think, in some ways that are really hard to see to the general public, the administration has made some real progress on better early-warning mechanisms and better funding of things like media intervention and funding for local NGOs that work on media issues, very, very early on to get information out to people—
JAMES TRAUB: So, Rosa, where is the administration active, would you say? Can you think of specific cases where they've done something in terms of preventive action?
ROSA BROOKS: Yes, I think it's dozens of places, actually. I think it's really hard to see, in the nature of this stuff, of the genocide. It's the dog that doesn't bark in the night. It's the genocides that don't happen, that we don't ever know about because they don't happen. The stuff that we do is so under-the-radar that how do you know it's the thing that stopped the genocide? Well, you don't, of course.
I mentioned media. I think that's an area where, just to take that as an example, one of the things we've seen across a lot of different cultures, whether it's Rwanda, Bosnia, or going back to the Holocaust, is the rise of hate media, both as an early warning sign of impending atrocities but also as a mechanism, literally, to mobilize people, to get them out there, to say, "Here's who you should go kill."
For instance, a real targeted program to monitor hate media and to respond, both by funding alternative narratives and by trying to discourage that from happening directly, is one of the very tiny little things that has been done that actually does, I think, make a difference.
As I said, how do you empirically prove that it stopped something from happening? Really hard to do.
So I think we actually have made some progress, despite the sort of open sores of Syria and a few other places.
This is something that Samantha Power constantly says, and she's not wrong. She says everybody thinks that stopping genocide should be sending in the Marines. We never want to get to that moment where that's the choice, like in Syria, where it seems like the choice is, do you invade/do you do nothing? If we've gotten there, we've already failed. You want to be in that place where your ability to make a difference—you got to it early enough that it is invisible.
I think it's hard. I think we have made some progress. I don't think we are going to be able to stop all atrocities. We probably shouldn't try, because sometimes we make things worse. The old just-war theory says, essentially like the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. I think that that's the Syria conundrum right now. It's easy to look at something and say we ought to do something, but if you're not quite confident that you can do more good than harm, well, maybe you shouldn't do something.
QUESTION: My name is Kevin McMullen.
I understood AirLand Battle.I understand a shift of emphasis to the Far East. But could somebody please explain AirSea Battle to me? How does that work? At most, it seems to be a device for preventing the Red Chinese from keeping our naval forces out of the area. But then what? There seems to be no connection between anything that can be done militarily and the political objective.
JAMES TRAUB: Rosa, maybe you could also first explain what all that is about, to the one or two people in the audience who may not have been following Pentagon doctrine.
ROSA BROOKS: It's part of the shift that we were discussing earlier to—okay, we're getting out of the business of these messy land wars. We're not going to do that anymore. So what are we going to do? We're going to pivot—no, we're not going to pivot—we're going to rebalance—I was told that we don't pivot; we rebalance—to Asia. This administration is very focused on the language. "Pivot" implies you're turning your back or you're spinning. Nobody likes to spin. But you could rebalance. That's sort of okay.
So we're rebalancing to Asia. It's part of an effort, as you suggest, by the Navy and Air Force—the two services that felt somewhat left out in the cold during the last decade, where the Marines and the Army were getting all the publicity and doing all the work—to say, "Hey, here's what we can do for you. We can come up with this sort of integrated idea of AirSea Battle."
It isn't just about China, even though I know nobody actually believes this. But I think it truly isn't just about China. It's not even necessarily primarily about China.
Here's the issue. The United States has the ability to project force across great distances. We have aircraft carriers, we have ballistic missiles, we have all these things. We can deliver weapons and people far away pretty quickly, much more quickly than anybody else in the world. All of these technologies do us no good if somebody else has developed counter-technologies that essentially mess with our ability to get our people and our stuff from one place to another. The technical term is "anti-access/area-denial technologies." We have fighter planes or drones. If somebody on the ground in the place where we want to go and fly our planes over can mess with their radar, can mess with their GPS system, can confuse them so they fly into the ocean instead, they do us no good. The same goes for all of our other technologies.
The concept of AirSea Battle at least is, wow, as we face these more and more technologically sophisticated adversaries, who are going to—nobody is going to go up against the United States directly. Nobody is that dumb. So what people will do is just try to keep us from getting there. They'll try to keep us from using our fancy technologies. The idea is that, in order to respond to that, the Air Force and the Navy, which are the really technologically sophisticated forces, at least in theory, are going to work together to come up with an integrated plan for countering those anti-access/area-denial technologies.
That said, your confusion is shared by, I would say, about 98 percent of the people who have been briefed on the concept. I probably can't do any better than that.
QUESTION: My name is Krishen Mehta. I'm with the Aspen Institute.
If we look at the fact that there was progress made on the Iranian issue in the Kerry administration, some people give Secretary of State Kerry credit. I don't know if the stage had been set under Mrs. Clinton's tenure in State and that led to it. But I'm somewhat concerned as to why Mrs. Clinton has not endorsed the process of peace negotiations with Iran publicly and whether the action of the Obama administration in pursuing peace in that direction is the correct one, and if you would favor such an endorsement from a prominent political figure like Mrs. Clinton.
ROSA BROOKS: I think it's the right path. To me, this is a success, a foreign policy success, of the Obama administration, for which both the president himself and Secretary Clinton, now Secretary Kerry, should all get some credit. Its success is not preordained, obviously. Bad things could still happen. But I think it was the right thing to do. I sure hope it works.
I think the reason Hillary Clinton has not wholeheartedly endorsed it is, as we said before, she's playing it safe. She, we presume, is going to run for president, and she wants to distance herself from a possible failure. So I suspect she's going to keep her head down as much as possible, which I think is—from the perspective of prospects of success of the negotiations with Iran, I think that's a shame. I think it would be helpful if she came out and said, "Yes, of course we have to do this, folks. Of course we have to do this." I doubt that she will, though. I think she's going to wait and see what happens.
QUESTIONER: Is it because it might fail or because of other political reasons?
ROSA BROOKS: I think it's both because it might fail and because there are a lot of voters out there who hate the very concept of talking to Iran. She's trying to play it safe herself. She doesn't want to lose any votes.
QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.
I'd like to get your ideas about how you think Obama has handled the Ukraine situation. Based on what you've said, it seems like about one of three hypotheses is possible: (1) He has finally learned something; (2) he's lucky; and (3) we don't know yet, which is probably the choice you'll make.
By the way, in terms of handling Ukraine, that was one case where Hillary Clinton was willing to mix it up. She said that Putin was acting like Hitler, which, however historically analogous it might be, was not a useful statement. I think whenever you start talking about Hitler in foreign policy, you've already lost the argument.
Let's hear what you have to say about Ukraine.
ROSA BROOKS: I think had Hillary Clinton still been Secretary Clinton, she would not have said that. But since she was once and future presidential candidate Clinton, she figured there was no particular reason not to do a little saber rattling when there was no likelihood whatsoever that she would actually have to follow through on it.
I think that the Ukraine episode, on the whole, has been another object lesson in the fact that the United States can't just magically make the rest of the world do what we want it to do, and that, in most ways, President Obama made the best of a situation in which we realistically didn't have a lot of options. Luckily for us—you know, Putin is crazy like a fox, but he's not completely self-destructive, so everybody seems to be moving back from the brink, which is probably the realistically most plausible outcome here.
So I don't know. Jim asked me earlier, do I think President Obama is naïve? Is he wrong? And I said I don't think he's either naïve or wrong in his instincts. I think he's just only episodically interested in staying focused and putting in place the kinds of internal mechanisms to follow through.
But I basically think his foreign policy instincts, when he gives it his attention, are essentially right: We need to be modest. We need to recognize that we can't always change bad things that happen, because when we try to do it, sometimes we make things worse. We need to recognize the limitations of our own power. We have a lot of very blunt instruments that we work with, and sometimes blunt instruments are worse than doing nothing.
I think he's inconsistent in how much his actions reflect that philosophy that he articulates, but I think that that's probably right, andin the case of Ukraine, by and large, I think he followed that philosophy. Is it paying dividends? Did he just get lucky? Hard to say, but—
JAMES TRAUB: Rosa, do you buy the theory of critics of Obama who say Putin took the measure of the man? That is to say, Putin saw that Obama was not somebody who was prepared to be confrontational, and therefore recognized that he could take Crimea and perhaps that he could at least threaten to take the East.
ROSA BROOKS: Can you think of a U.S. president from either political party who would, in fact, have been willing to start a war with Russia?
JAMES TRAUB: I sure hope not. The counterexample would be somebody like McCain, the sort of beau ideal [the ideal type] of neocons, who—their theory would be McCain's overall resoluteness and chestiness would have made Putin think twice before acting aggressively.
ROSA BROOKS: It's just possible that Putin would have thought, "Man, that guy is crazy enough to start a war." But I don't know—
JAMES TRAUB: That's what Richard Nixon called the mad-dog theory.
ROSA BROOKS: Yes, the mad-dog theory.
In no way relieving Putin of responsibility for doing a lot of bad things, I also think the United States did some really stupid things. We were rushing around. One of our assistant secretaries of state was rushing around giving cookies to the demonstrators, not all of whom were people we should have been cozying up with. We looked like we were supporting an ouster of somebody who was a jerk, but who, in fact, had been elected. We were doing our share of meddling. That doesn't justify Putin's response.
JAMES TRAUB: I think you make it seem more subtle than it was. The United States plainly was supporting the insurgents, the forces of democracy.
ROSA BROOKS: Yes, so we partly created the conditions that clearly Putin was going to see as provocative and threatening himself. He's not crazy. He's a rational actor. He responded in a way that he thought he needed to to protect his own flanks. He went as far as he thought he could go and then he stopped. I suspect it would have been the same with anybody.
QUESTION: My name is Jim Robbins.
Could you comment on how you regard the balance that would be ideal between State Department diplomacy and Pentagon force? In an ideal world, how would you change that balance?
JAMES TRAUB: This is the subject of Rosa's book. You have come into her wheelhouse.
ROSA BROOKS: Not quite. I'm actually going to differ, I think, probably from where you would come out on this, Jim, and where a lot of my friends come out on this. God did not invent the State Department; God did not invent the military. These are categories that we created. The distinctions between these institutions and their roles are totally arbitrary.
I think we have started to fetishize the idea that once upon a time, in the good old days, we had these wonderful civilian institutions, and oh, my gosh, this is so sad, they've been de-funded and the military's doing all these things it has no business doing, and we must just go back to the way it used to be, which I don't think is going to happen in any of our political lifetimes. I see zero likelihood on the Hill that anybody is going to start re-funding the civilian side here.
To me, the implication of that is that we can all run around and have panel discussions, which we do a lot in Washington, in which we say, "Oh, my goodness, it's so terrible. We need to rebalance the civilian," or we can say, "It's not going to change, so we should figure out what the United States needs to be able to do, and if the military is the only institution that anybody on the Hill is willing to fund, let's figure out how to get them to do it better," because right now they do it badly, because they don't want to do it and because they're kind of going, "Well, any day now, the State Department is going to come back." Neither of those things is going to happen.
So I actually think that we need to kind of let go of our fixation on—let me put it a little differently. There's a glass-half-full and a glass-half-empty way to think of this. The glass-half-empty way to think of it is to say, "Oh, my gosh, we've seen the militarization of American foreign policy." That is an accurate statement. But I think it's equally accurate to say—the glass-half-full version—that we are seeing the civilianization of the American military. And there's probably no going back.
So I'm more inclined to focus on—the military, for all its flaws, has the ability to marshal human talent and ingenuity to a vastly greater degree than any other public institution we currently have. So can we build on that somehow and make it smarter and better and more subtle, which it's not so great at right now (cf. "cultural food")? Can we build on that, instead? And to the extent that we have concerns about civilian control of the military, which we should have, I think those are concerns about accountability and about restraint on power. But it seems to me that there are other mechanisms than any particular set of institutional arrangements; there are other mechanisms we could come up with to achieve those same goals with a different set of structures.
JAMES TRAUB: By the way, I might say ideally, as maybe you're saying, it should be otherwise, but I think you're absolutely right, it is not going to be otherwise. And my impression is that the military is deeply conflicted about playing what they call "missions other than war"—MOOTWs, they say in the military world—roles, and it's going to play those roles one way or another. So, yes, I think these are big issues, questions about how the military is going to be configured, and not just in this kind of regional planning sense.
So, yes, I think that Donald Rumsfeld is wrong. It's not really, in the end, about technology. It's about what it is you ask people to do. And there's a big question about what we're going to ask people to do in the military. This is what your books is going to help clarify for us.
Rosa, thank you so much. This has just been great.