The world of June 2014 is not a world the Obama Administration wanted or foresaw. The plan was that six years of no-drama, no-stupid-stuff diplomacy would repair the damage of the Bush years, isolate jihadis in a democratizing Middle East, develop a new relationship with Iran, build a businesslike relationship with Russia, and pacify East Asia. Europe would sleep, the Middle East would cool, and by pivoting to Asia the United States would stabilize the world’s most dynamic economic region and enhance American prestige even as it slashed defense budgets and stepped away from the global front lines. It was a beautiful plan, but it hasn’t worked out.
The reset with Russia ended with Putin mounting the most brazen land grab in Europe since World War Two. The pivot to Asia brought us to the point where tense standoffs over half a dozen disputed sites in the waters off China have turned into potential flash points, and where senior Chinese generals use the harshest rhetoric against the United States since before Nixon’s visit to Beijing. Al-Qaeda is no longer “on the run” according to as sober a source as the Financial Times; it’s in its best shape since October 2001 by some analyses. The Syria horror continues to grow more intense and the consequences, more dire; Western intelligence agencies say they are unable to track the activities of thousands of Western passport holders now being trained in the finer points of jihad as they fight against Assad. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in ruins despite major pushes by the President in each of his two terms. Saudi Arabia is cold to the Administration’s regional policy. Libya is a disaster. Years of “democracy promotion” in Egypt revealed the depth of American illusions about the Arab Spring and exposed the limits of our influence in Egypt. Congressional support for the Administration’s Atlantic and Pacific trade initiatives appears to be withering away. The President’s surge in Afghanistan (the war, let it be remembered, that he called a just and necessary war and vowed to win) is faltering ingloriously as officials race to redefine “success” faster than conditions deteriorate on the ground.
It increasingly looks as if Secretaries Clinton and Gates made the right move in getting out when they did. The contrast between the hope of the first term and the change of the second could not be more marked. But for the President and his embattled team contemplating the new world disorder, the going keeps getting tougher. And it’s not just that the foreign news makes for unpleasant reading; the sense that the President’s foreign policy has gone seriously awry is undercutting his authority at home and contributing to the GOP’s chances of taking the Senate and blocking the President’s agenda during his remaining two years.
The White House seems aware of the problem; the President’s speech at West Point last week was a rare, high-profile effort to seize control of the foreign policy discussion. But the speech (like so many others by the man once hailed as the second coming of Abraham Lincoln) soon sank without a trace.
At this point, none of President Obama’s foreign policy problems can be solved by a teleprompter. The President doesn’t need more speechwriters or better ones. He needs something totally different: He needs some real-world wins. You don’t demonstrate your mastery of world events by making smart speeches about how intelligent your foreign policy is; you demonstrate your mastery of world events by having things go your way.
If, for example, as America stepped up support for the Syrian rebels, President Assad suddenly found that the climate in Damascus was no longer salubrious and went shopping for a retirement home on the shores of the Black Sea, we would hear much less about a crisis in American leadership. If the United States and its NATO allies committed to major new defense installations in the Baltic republics and Poland, there would be less chest thumping in Moscow. If Ukraine’s military and security forces gradually became more effective, were better equipped, and began to drive the noisy rabble of Russia-sponsored thugs back over the frontier, President Obama wouldn’t need to make speeches about America’s commitment to eastern Europe.
The world is a big place, and there are lots of issues to choose from, but the President now urgently needs to put some points on the board. Otherwise, his authority will continue to erode.
As it is, the President appears to be second guessing himself, but in the worst possible way. He is stepping up support for the Syrian rebels, but not by enough to make a difference on the battlefield. He is proposing new military spending for Europe, but at such a low level that his proposal disappoints his allies and reassures his opponents. One can hope that some things are happening behind the scenes, but from what we can read in the press, President Obama is still splitting differences and splitting hairs when he could and should be making a stand. This is President Obama at his worst: months of agonizing and logic chopping ending in a strategy that fails.
The essence of strategy is to align your ends with your means: to match your goals and your resources. The core problem that has dogged this President from the beginning is a failure to do that. His goals have always been high and difficult, but he hasn’t wanted (or perhaps felt able) to invest the political, financial, or military resources that such large goals require. To heal the breach between the United States and the Arab world, for example, is a noble and a worthy goal, but it is extremely hard to do and would take much more money, political engagement, and policy change than President Obama has been willing to put on the table. Nuclear disarmament, a global climate change treaty, democracy in the Arab world, victory in Afghanistan, detente with Iran, the establishment of R2P as American doctrine, Israeli-Palestinian peace: This is less a foreign policy than a catalog of Holy Grails.
Choosing high goals is not necessarily a bad thing, even if you fail. As GK Chesterton put it, anything worth doing is worth doing badly. But to choose extraordinary goals without putting extraordinary resources into the quest to achieve them is a sign of foolishness and arrogance, not idealism. If you want to rid the world of nuclear weapons, for example, you would have to be willing to make a real issue of the Budapest Memorandum. Ukraine is a nation that did what Obama would like many others to do: It gave up nuclear weapons in exchange for an agreement that its territorial integrity would be respected. The United States signed that agreement; President Obama must either commit himself to a vigorous defense of Ukraine now, or accept that the goal of a nuclear-free world is beyond his grasp. Characteristically, President Obama seems to be trying to split the difference. He doesn’t want to give up his high goal, but he doesn’t really want to pay for it, either. In Kiev this week he restated America’s commitment to Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity, but only offered $5 million in additional (non-military) aid to a country under attack by a larger, more powerful neighbor. Tyrants, tremble: the check is in the mail.
The mix of ambitious goals and mingy means doesn’t just leave the President suspended in the gap between his soaring words and sketchy deeds; it gets him and the country he leads into trouble abroad. This Administration, for example, prides itself on making U.S. diplomacy an instrument of human rights and democracy promotion. USAID and other U.S. agencies gave large grants to foreign NGOs working to train “civil society activists” and to build the capacity of independent groups to act in defiance of government censorship and controls. This is certainly a commendable idea from the standpoint of democracy promotion, but we ought to be clear that governments in countries like Russia, China, Egypt, and Cuba consider this an extremely hostile and confrontational policy. They are not wrong; it is a policy of soft regime change, seeking to undermine non-democratic regimes and hasten the day when they fall.
As the White House saw things, the United States was pragmatically seeking a businesslike relationship with Russia (unlike that stupid hardliner George W. Bush) while nobly keeping faith with our enduring commitment to democratic values. From Putin’s point of view, President Obama was babbling incoherently about “resets” while clumsily and ineffectively trying to undermine his regime. Putin’s puzzle was to figure out whether Obama was a knave or a fool; whether he was consciously deceptive in holding out the olive branch to Russia with one hand while concealing a dagger in the other, or whether Obama simply failed to understand that his Russia policy was an incoherent mess. Either way, there was very little chance that the Obamian policy mix would lead to better relations with Russia, and it is likely that the mix of hostility and incompetence that Putin thinks he sees in American policy informed his calculations about what he could do in Ukraine.
It is likely that China’s calculations about how hard it can press to challenge the United States are grounded in similar lines of thought. It is not that they think Obama is “weak” or “dovish”; they can count drone strikes as well as anybody else, and they are under no illusions about America’s instinctive hatred for authoritarian governance. Like the Russians, they see Washington’s move in Libya as revealing our deep-seated drive to get rid of regimes we don’t like and assume we would do the same to them if we could. But they also think that American policy is confused and narcissistic: that we proclaim ambitious goals because we like to flatter ourselves about our power and our nobility of character, but that we lack the resolution to achieve them. They think we will make speeches about rebalancing in Asia and commitments to our allies, but that as we perceive the risks and costs such commitments entail we will gradually back down.
Obama’s mix of high rhetoric, noble ideals and risk-averse decision-making plays into the stereotypes that Russians, Chinese, and others around the world have about the American national character. The idealistic speeches and the human rights gestures feed their fear of American purposes; the risk aversion plays into their contempt for American resolve. The result is to tilt policy in both Moscow and Beijing toward aggressive anti-Americanism. The governments in both countries believe that we are a threat to their internal security, but that we can be buffaloed if our opponents get tough.
What feels in the Obama White House like a smart mix of idealism and pragmatism looks very different abroad; unwittingly, the Administration’s “house style” of foreign policymaking is virtually guaranteed to promote aggressive behavior abroad.
What we have now is a deeply dispiriting spectacle: The world is not going Obama’s way, and the White House PR machine attempts to offset this with faux triumphs like the painfully overhyped Bergdahl exchange. For his own sake, and the sake of the nation he heads, President Obama needs to revisit his basic approach to world affairs. Fundamentally, he must either dial back his idealism or dial back on his promises to pull the United States back from the global front lines.
This is not, I fear, really a choice. In the abstract, there are good arguments for either course, but in the real world American opinion is unlikely to sustain a foreign policy that consigns human rights to the dustheap of history. I’ll return to this topic in another post, but it’s worth remembering that in the aftermath of the Vietnam War Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon attempted to chart a purely realist course in pursuing detente with the Soviet Union, recognition of Mao’s China (during the Cultural Revolution, no less), support for Pakistan against India, and otherwise following a cold, realist calculus of national interest and limited engagement. By the middle of the 1970s both parties were in revolt against what was seen as an immoral and un-American foreign policy.
In any case, the reset America needs now is in the White House, and we must hope that the President presses the button soon. It is much easier to lose credibility than to regain it; the longer U.S. policy drifts in its current odd mix of ambition and retrenchment, the less likely it is that the President will be able to turn things around.