Advice Column: Reading the Exit Memos



There is an old joke in which two Marxists—one orthodox, the other wavering—are arguing about the future of socialism. In exasperation, the more committed notes that while the future is certain, the past is constantly changing. So it is now with the Obama administration. Was strategic patience a failure or was it the best that the US could do given the alignment of forces around the peninsula?

As we move toward the inauguration of Donald Trump, Witness to Transformation is launching a new feature called Advice Column that will summarize—and engage—the slew of reports that seek to provide advice to the incoming administration; several earlier entries are linked below. What better way to start by looking backwards at the exit memos produced by Obama’s Defense and State Departments. A common theme—and the overarching issue on which the Obama administration will be judged—was that the United States needed to pull back from its commitments to the land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to focus on other priorities. Those included Asia and Russia while maintaining the commitment to the counter-terrorism fight.  


Ashton Carter’s exit memo from the Pentagon lists five central concerns, with two of them in Asia: Russian aggression, particularly in Europe; Iran’s influence in the Middle East; terrorism, including most obviously ISIS and its offshoots; the rebalance in Asia and the North Korean problem. The discussion leads with the rebalance. While it talks about the aim of creating an inclusive security architecture that includes China, Carter is at pains to underscore that real military assets have been in play, a constant refrain from Obama’s critics:

“To do so, we are positioning 60 percent of our Navy and overseas Air Force assets in the Asia-Pacific region, including some of our most advanced capabilities. For instance, over the past eight years, DoD has deployed a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery to Guam; introduced additional ballistic missile defense-capable ships into Japan; replaced CH-46 helicopters in Okinawa with more capable MV-22 Osprey aircraft; established air-ground task force capabilities in multiple locations across the Pacific; introduced a continuous bomber presence in the region to bolster partner nations; and strengthened the capabilities of U.S. Air Force and Army forces in the Republic of Korea. We have also focused on building similar security capabilities in our many friends and allies.  We’ve done this through recent efforts like the five-year $425 million Maritime Security Initiative, which has increased training, exercises, personnel support, and maritime domain awareness in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

We have invested in strengthening and modernizing our alliances: revising bilateral defense guidelines with Japan; moving to a conditions-based approach to the transition of wartime operational control with South Korea; establishing a rotational deployment of U.S. Marines in Australia; signing an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines; and establishing closer defense ties with India, including by naming it a Major Defense Partner and establishing the Defense Technology Trade Initiative.”

On North Korea, the memo sounds assured, noting that “DoD is fully capable of defending the U.S. homeland” against threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.” The question is whether that assessment will continue if Kim Jong Un does follow through on his boast to test an ICBM capability. The North Korea assessment closes with the commitment to deploy THAAD by the end of 2017, a promise that will come under severe stress if China continues to play hardball on the issue and particularly if the government shifts left following the Park impeachment. A separate section details missile defense efforts:

“Given North Korea’s aggressive pursuit of the capability to delivery ballistic missile attacks against the homeland, U.S. forces and allies and partners, we’ve made the important decision to strengthen and improve our missile defense capabilities –particularly to counter the A2/AD challenge of increasingly precise and increasingly long-range ballistic and cruise missiles being fielded by several nations in multiple regions of the world. Instead of spending more money on a smaller number of more traditional and expensive interceptors, we’re funding a wide range of defensive capabilities that can defeat incoming missile raids at much lower cost per round, and thereby impose higher costs on the attacker.

We’re investing in improvements that complicate enemy targeting, harden our bases, and leverage gun-based point defense capabilities. We’re also committed to improving our homeland and theater defense systems, and those of our partners. For instance, we are working to increase the number of deployed Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) in Alaska from 30 to 44, and deployed an additional radar to Japan. We have also fielded multiple theater missile defense platforms, increasing the number of DDG-51 AEGIS destroyers capable of conducting missile defense, and procuring the PAC-3/MSE interceptor to give the Patriot Air Defense System longer reach. And we continue to expand missile defense cooperation with allies and partners around the globe, including by deploying four DDG-51s to Rota, Spain; and stationing THAAD batteries in Guam and the Middle East while working to conclude other THAAD deployments in concert with allies and partners such as South Korea.”

In sum, Carter seeks to underline that the pivot was serious. Despite the criticisms during the campaign, I expect that the Trump administration will actually follow pretty closely along the lines of action laid down in the Carter memo.


As with the Defense memo, Secretary Kerry counts the achievements as drawing down forces in the Middle East, largely keeping the US safe from terrorism—fear-mongering aside—the Iranian deal and doing something on climate change. Less visible efforts that receive substantial attention from Kerry are the succession of Nuclear Security Summits that sought to focus “high-level attention on the threat of nuclear terrorism and enhancing and elevating how we secure nuclear materials and prevent nuclear smuggling.”

Kerry also touts the rebalance underlining the complementary diplomatic efforts to the military ones underscored by Carter. Leading those accomplishments are a focus on the alliances, a central reason why Trump’s comments in this regard were seen as so destructive. There is no way that the US can play a rebalancing role in Asia in the absence of deeply functioning alliances and new partnerships:

“…we have strengthened our treaty alliances with Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Australia, while maintaining our long-standing alliances with Thailand and the Philippines. We have deepened our partnerships with India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Over the last eight years, we have strengthened the region’s institutional architecture to reinforce a rules-based order, including in the maritime arena.”

In a subsequent paragraph, India is singled out as a key partner in the larger strategic architecture.

The last sentence is clearly controversial: there has hardly been agreement with China in the maritime arena and more needs to be done to signal US intent in that regard. But Kerry paints a much more nuanced picture with respect to China than is commonly held among hawks: that China and the US have actually gotten along better on global governance issues, with the friction coming in the region:

“In our relationship with China, the most consequential of our bilateral relationships in the world today, we have built on the positive and productive relationship that President Obama established with President Xi to expand cooperation on a range of global challenges such as clean energy and health, including paradigm-shifting cooperation in reducing the threat of climate change. We have also worked together to increase stability in states like Afghanistan, confront global health epidemics, and address development challenges. However, we still have areas of vigorous disagreement, including on cybersecurity, human rights, and disputes in the East and South China Seas. In the years ahead, there is perhaps no more important issue on the U.S.-China agenda than North Korea’s increasingly destabilizing and provocative behavior.” 

On North Korea, the best that Kerry can offer is success on the most recent sanctions resolution, a far cry from any material progress on the issue:

“Thanks to our efforts at the United Nations Security Council, we are handing off to the next Administration a strong foundation for increasing pressure on Pyongyang that will be critical to address this threat. Twice this year, the UN Security Council came together to pass the toughest resolutions ever on North Korea, in an attempt to get Pyongyang to change its course. In the coming months, we must remain steadfast – through diplomacy, deterrence, and pressure – to build a sustained, comprehensive, and relentless campaign that increases the costs on North Korea until it makes a strategic decision to return to serious talks on denuclearization and complies with its international obligations.” 

That is pretty weak gruel. But the great irony of this election is that a Trump administration probably doesn’t have an approach in its pocket that differs fundamentally from these two memos. The pivot to Asia will remain central, and will require building political and military partnerships and alliances. And North Korea will remain a frustrating long slog with no silver bullet solution.

Advice Column Posts

These posts provide short guides to published policy reports by prominent organizations or individuals on North Korea.

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