Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Congressman Adam Smith’s foreign policy problem

I’ve just returned from a week of fishing on a remote island in Alaska, happily distant from events in the rest of the world. It brings a welcome sense of perspective when one’s biggest concern is where the salmon are running. In this case it was a great week, as both the kings and silvers ...

By , the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

I've just returned from a week of fishing on a remote island in Alaska, happily distant from events in the rest of the world. It brings a welcome sense of perspective when one's biggest concern is where the salmon are running. In this case it was a great week, as both the kings and silvers were feeding in abundance, and the Inboden freezer will be well-stocked with fish for months. Meanwhile I'm now playing catch up on various happenings, and over the next few days will offer thoughts on some recent foreign policy and politics items.

First up is Congressman Adam Smith's recent Foreign Policy article. Smith, a Democrat and the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, wrote here at FP.com a few days ago larding praise on the Obama administration while lambasting the Romney campaign for its foreign policy support from former Bush administration officials (hmm, sounds like a lot of us here at Shadow Government including yours truly). On substance, Smith's piece is fundamentally unserious, and certainly will not help elevate his standing as a "wise man on foreign policy." (It is generally expected of a member of Congress who aspires to be seen as a leader on national security policy to write a "big think" piece for a serious outlet like FP -- a well-crafted article can mark a member as an up-and-comer, but a poorly crafted one can do more damage than silence).

On this count Smith's article disappoints. It reads as if it were written by Democratic National Committee staff circa 2005. Like many Democratic critiques from that era, this one lambastes the Iraq war, while conveniently neglecting to mention Smith's own past support for the war. Indeed, Smith, like many Democrats, has not yet figured out how to acknowledge that by their own scoring they were wrong on Iraq twice: wrong to support the war when things were going well, but also wrong to oppose the surge, which substantially helped reverse the trajectory when things were going poorly. They seek to damn all initial supporters of the Iraq war (except themselves) but are unwilling to extend the logic by damning all opponents of the surge.

I’ve just returned from a week of fishing on a remote island in Alaska, happily distant from events in the rest of the world. It brings a welcome sense of perspective when one’s biggest concern is where the salmon are running. In this case it was a great week, as both the kings and silvers were feeding in abundance, and the Inboden freezer will be well-stocked with fish for months. Meanwhile I’m now playing catch up on various happenings, and over the next few days will offer thoughts on some recent foreign policy and politics items.

First up is Congressman Adam Smith’s recent Foreign Policy article. Smith, a Democrat and the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, wrote here at FP.com a few days ago larding praise on the Obama administration while lambasting the Romney campaign for its foreign policy support from former Bush administration officials (hmm, sounds like a lot of us here at Shadow Government including yours truly). On substance, Smith’s piece is fundamentally unserious, and certainly will not help elevate his standing as a "wise man on foreign policy." (It is generally expected of a member of Congress who aspires to be seen as a leader on national security policy to write a "big think" piece for a serious outlet like FP — a well-crafted article can mark a member as an up-and-comer, but a poorly crafted one can do more damage than silence).

On this count Smith’s article disappoints. It reads as if it were written by Democratic National Committee staff circa 2005. Like many Democratic critiques from that era, this one lambastes the Iraq war, while conveniently neglecting to mention Smith’s own past support for the war. Indeed, Smith, like many Democrats, has not yet figured out how to acknowledge that by their own scoring they were wrong on Iraq twice: wrong to support the war when things were going well, but also wrong to oppose the surge, which substantially helped reverse the trajectory when things were going poorly. They seek to damn all initial supporters of the Iraq war (except themselves) but are unwilling to extend the logic by damning all opponents of the surge.

But beyond its selective history on Iraq, at its core Smith’s op-ed has a much bigger problem: the Obama administration has adopted almost wholesale the so-called "discredited doctrines and reckless policies" of the Bush-Cheney administration that Smith decries. This White House’s biggest foreign policy successes have almost always come when following Bush administration policies (yes, this point has been made many times before, but it bears repeating as long as tendentious articles like Smith’s are being written). Policies and doctrines such as the preemptive use of force, unilateral operations, counter-insurgency warfare, indefinite detention of terrorist suspects, military tribunals, drone strikes, multilateral coalitions to pressure North Korea and Iran on their nuclear programs, strong assertions of executive authority — all of these were controversial when developed by the Bush administration. And all have been adopted, and in some cases expanded, by the Obama administration, particularly as it continues the war against al Qaeda.

If Smith’s article represents the strongest line of attack that the Obama campaign has against Gov. Romney on foreign policy, it is the flimsiest of rubber swords.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.