If, as Winston Churchill declared on 1 October, 1939, Russia is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, then the foreign policy of the Obama administration is an ambivalence wrapped in a mentality inside a perplexity. The latter is not as inclined to malignity as was the former in Joseph Stalin’s time, but it is just as difficult to decipher as we approach its first term halfway mark.
The fact that it is hard to speak coherently about that which turns out to be incoherent may help to account for the fact that virtually no one has offered a full-scale synthesis of the subject. Shorter sketches on discrete issues there are. Partisan op-ed length potshots and (usually) mercifully brief blog posts written by the standard assortment of fans, fanatics and fantasists both abound. But, quite uncharacteristically, little big-picture analysis has been published. Doubtless there are several reasons for this unusual state of affairs concerning the affairs of state, but the sheer difficulty of doing the deed has to be one of them.
Why the difficulty, and what might an answer to that question tell us about the subject itself? Three reasons produced by the administration’s own choices and nature come first to mind. They have to do with the interplay of policy rhetoric and behavior, management style and the key factor of personality in presidential as opposed to Westminster forms of democracy. Three other reasons of very different sorts, and having to do with existential realities not of the administration’s making, come to mind as well. One, which complements the management piece, is the notable fact that there has yet been no significant sudden crisis to condense plans and intentions into procedural precedent—no 3 am telephone call to the White House residential quarters from the National Security Advisor. The historical record shows that the precedents which matter most, those that elevate some people and privilege certain ideas, are formed from experience, not theory. So far, that experience ‘under fire’ is absent from the Obama watch.
A second extrinsic concern is a new slipperiness of definition about the subject itself. Foreign policy has always been difficult to disentangle from national security policy. Today, however, both are entwined with the extrusions of a domestic economic crisis that is beginning to look larger and more structurally grounded than was apparent in the tumultuous autumn of 2008. Foreign policy looks different to national leaders when seen through the lens of domestic priorities, and this can disorient observers used to a more conventional setup. The third extrinsic reason is so obvious that most observers neglect it: politics. Barack Obama seeks to be re-elected president in 2012, and his statecraft can not reasonably be understood in isolation from that fact.
Let us look at these factors in turn, and then assemble them in hopes of achieving a synthetic analysis. We should not be surprised if our own hard labors at understanding parallel in some ways the difficulties confronting the still new Obama administration that is our subject.
As to the rhetoric of US foreign policy in the Obama era, the one statement that may be offered without fear of contradiction is that there has been plenty of it—much of it presidential in nature. There have been not just one but two start-of-term foundational foreign policy speeches, the purpose of which is to articulate to the world the purpose of American power. The President delivered the first on 7 July 2009 in Moscow, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered the second on 15 July in Washington. Both speeches bore the structure of a standard start-of-term foundational statement in that each stressed five principles or pillars. (The problem was that the President’s five principles and those of his Secretary of State did not match up well, a fact bearing on the question of management, to which we return below.)
We also have as of late May 2010 the obligatory annual National Security Strategy, a document that is, accurately or not, taken to bear the imprimatur of an administration at its highest level. Besides these we have the presidential foreign policy addresses delivered in Ankara and Cairo, critical war policy speeches on Afghanistan and Iraq, two major presentations to the UN General Assembly, a most unusual philosophical discourse on the occasion of the President’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, and more besides in the form of interviews, news conferences, official statements on the occasion of state visits, and so on. We also have, not at all incidentally, the first Obama budget, which speaks volumes in numbers. Compared to most of his post-World War II predecessors, Obama has been a veritable one-man talkfest.
And what does all this word wrangling tell us? It tells us a good deal less than one might think, not because nothing of substance has been said, but because nearly everything has been said. Usually the President has seemed to be channeling Woodrow Wilson, dismissing balance-of-power and spheres-of-influence language as ‘so 19th century’ in favor of utopianesque ventures like Global Zero in nuclear weapons and an emphasis on taming strategic competition though legal progress towards global governance. But other times he has seemed to be channeling Reinhold Niebuhr, speaking like a moral realist who recognizes the inevitability of trade-offs and the tenacity of the will to have power among people. The sum of it is a profound ambivalence.
Beneath the rhetoric, however, there have emerged certain intellectual and policy tendencies, but these have been either unclear or unstable. For example, in its not very original but understandable desire to be the un-Dubya, the Obama administration broke from the gate offering earnest engagement to nearly every American adversary it could find—Iran, Syria, North Korea, Burma and others. With an apology or two usually to hand, it trusted that more diplomacy and less prominence for the military instruments of foreign policy would unfreeze problems large and small. At the same time that it privileged an effusive and accommodating tone, its body language was that of cold-blooded tactical realism. It sought the pragmatic deal and rigorously avoided the ‘d’-word—‘democracy’ promotion—in its rhetorical ensemble.
All this suggested that, at a time of straitened economic and political circumstances at home, the administration was eager to beat the kind of tactical retreat that would simultaneously reduce US obligations while not letting things go to hell in a hand basket. This was not an unreasonable approach, particularly with regard to bringing two difficult, expensive and divisive shooting wars to an end. Nevertheless, the policy claimed more than a tactical intent: it pointed inwards to a core source of US troubles. It strongly implied that many gridlocked danger spots around the globe were caused not by genuine conflict of interests or the aggressive designs of others, but by the wayward psychology of American machismo, its preachy holier-than-thou tone, and the temper-escalated misunderstandings that arose there from to make the world more dangerous than it needed to be. A new tone, the President seemed to think, would make a huge difference; speeches could therefore be, in some cases at least, self-executing vehicles of policy.
As it happened, the administration’s early efforts to translate a new rhetoric into policy success did not fare well. Certainly, no major problem has fallen to solution just because Obama made a speech about it. Indeed, there is scant evidence that the change in tone the President did manage to bring about has sprouted any positive concrete policy consequences at all. Polls have shown that while the President is on balance more popular abroad than his predecessor, his policies really are not—not in the Middle East, not in Europe, not in Asia.
Moreover, many of the administration’s policies are not new, and this has posed other problems for the marriage of rhetoric and reality. While what has been discontinuous has not worked (at least not yet), the major areas of policy marked by continuity are understandably not among the administration’s favorite talking points. It has stunned many, including many in the United States, that Obama’s policies in a host of sensitive areas in what used to be called the ‘global war on terror’ bear a striking resemblance to those of the two Bush administrations.
Thus, candidate Obama swore to close down the Guantanamo prison; but President Obama, finding the problem more complex than he thought once in office, has failed to do so. President Obama, while jettisoning the ‘war on terror’ for the lower-case Orwellian ‘overseas contingency operations’, has nevertheless increased the use of Predator drone strikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan, many of which have the character of targeted killings. And he has duly sent forth his lawyers to explain why such killings and attempted killings, even of some self-exiled American citizens like Sheik Anwar al-Awlaqi, do not violate US law.
Before his inauguration many believed, too, that Obama would encourage lustration deep within the Central Intelligence Agency over accusations of its having been involved in torture in secret prisons abroad. He did no such thing, choosing instead to protect the autonomy and morale of CIA operations. Indeed, from all reliable accounts, as well as from Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, his approach to national security has ramped up sharply the use of clandestine operations undertaken by the CIA and other agencies of the US government, including those engaged in warrantless wiretaps. It has to follow, whether the President yet realizes it or not, that crossing an inevitably too-inflexible legal line from time to time just goes with that territory.
The failure of the administration’s engagement initiatives to transform their targets has doubled back in certain ways on the rhetoric itself. Thus, in recent months the administration has exaggerated the success of US–Russia relations as an end in itself, when the original purpose of engaging the Russians was to gain aid for alleviating more painful pressures in Iran and Afghanistan. Some early engagement efforts, too, were counterproductive to the administration’s own aspirations. Its misguided blundering into the Israeli–Palestinian cauldron set back the re-commencement of direct Israeli–Palestinian negotiations by a year.
To his credit, the President admitted that the problem was more formidable than he had thought. But even after that bout of contrition, new mistakes along the same lines as the old ones have thrown a pall over those negotiations’ likely achievement.
Some of the administration’s engagement initiatives brought harsh criticism at home, too, and so carried political complications. This was especially true for policy towards an Iranian leadership newly challenged in the streets after its rigged June 2009 election. Even many who wished the administration well were aghast at its stony dismissal of Iranian ‘greens’ brave enough to risk their lives for freedom. Other efforts, like the outreach to Syria, simply fell flat on their faces for lack of any interest on the other side.
The attempt to truly join rhetoric and behavior into a coherent whole foundered further as the level of policy abstraction increased. Thus, in the Middle East the administration insisted that the Arab–Israeli conflict was linked to everything else that seemed to be the matter with the region (a vast exaggeration), while in relations with Russia, with its famous ‘reset’ button as another example of the belief that tone and atmospherics could trump interests in relations between major countries, it explicitly denied linkage (a sheer impossibility). It had wished to reach an understanding with Moscow on both Afghanistan and Iran without getting snared in neuralgic issues such as the Georgia–Abkhazia–South Ossetia morass. It thought to use arms control as a kind of lubricant to assuage Russian pride, a notion recommended by the fact that 95 per cent of the work on a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) had already been completed during the Bush administration—but this, it insisted, was not a form of linkage.
The Russians, for their part, insisted otherwise. They demanded payment for any help they might give, as eventually manifested in the US withdrawal of certain ballistic missile defense plans in Eastern Europe, Moscow’s refusal to unequivocally rule out the supply of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, US indulgence of Russian aid for Iran’s bringing the Bushehr nuclear plant on-line, and more besides. The administration got for all this a better understanding about logistical cooperation vis-à-vis Afghanistan and a Russian vote for tougher anti-Iran sanctions that are of dubious utility in any event. And much to the administration’s consternation and surprise, Moscow slow-rolled the START talks, less to gain advantage within that agreement than to foil administration timetables at the UN and on the ground in south-west Asia. Thus the administration learned (one hopes) that linkage is a way of life, not a procedural tap one can turn on in one place or off in another at will.
Even in areas seemingly of high priority to the administration, it could not reliably connect the rhetoric-to-policy dots. On non-proliferation policy, for example, the administration belabored efforts on its Global Zero initiative, the late April 2010 Washington Nuclear Security Summit and the May 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review conference, even as policy towards Iran and North Korea lay disconnected from these affairs. It was as if administration principals thought they could move reality by pushing on the shadows it made. Meanwhile, although US policy on the Iranian nuclear program remained unchanged—an Iranian nuclear weapons capability remains ‘unacceptable’ and no option to enforce that policy will be ‘removed from the table’—authoritative voices from within the administration signaled that the use of force against Iran is for any practical purpose not on the table as long as US efforts are still surging up and struggling on in Afghanistan.
We shall see how all this shakes out in due course, but the noises coming out of the Pentagon are inherently believable because they are logical: using force against Iran while the conflict in Afghanistan persists would be the equivalent in American politics of starting a second war. Unless a clear existential threat to the United States is believed to exist, as in World War II, sane strategists don’t open a second front while a first one is already in a mess. So when the Secretary of State, amid one of her “crippling sanctions” reveries, began musing out loud about “learning to live with an Iranian bomb”, no one was particularly surprised, least of all the Iranian leadership. Yet it seems not to have occurred to administration principals that one cannot effectively raise the prospect of a new form of extended deterrence on one hand while undermining its credibility through a Global Zero initiative on the other.
Indeed, the fuzzy indeterminacy that characterizes the Obama foreign policy holds true even at the highest echelon of strategy. The United States is the world’s pre-eminent if not hegemonic power. Since World War II it has set the normative standards and both formed and guarded the security and economic structures of the world. In that capacity it has provided for a relatively secure and prosperous global commons, a mission nicely convergent with the maturing American self-image as an exceptionalist nation. To do this, however, the United States has had to maintain a global military presence as a token of its commitment to the mission and as a means of reassurance to those far and wide with a stake in it. This has required a global network of alliances and bases, the cost of which is not small and the maintenance of which, in both diplomatic and other terms, is a full-time job.
Against this definition of strategic mission there have always been those in the United States who have dissented, holding that we do, ask and expect much too much, and get into gratuitous trouble as a result. Some have preferred outright isolationism, but most serious skeptics of the status quo have preferred a posture of ‘offshore balancing’. Remove the bases and end the alliances, they have argued, and the US government will be better able, at less risk and far less cost to the nation, to balance against threatening developments abroad, much as America’s strategic mentor, Great Britain, did throughout most of the 19th century.
This is the core conversation Americans have been having about the US global role since at least 1945. To one side we recall George McGovern’s 1972 ‘Come Home, America’ campaign plank, the Mansfield Amendment that would have removed US troops from Europe in mid-Cold War, and the early Carter administration’s proposal to remove US troops from South Korea spoken in rhythm to speeches decrying an “inordinate fear of communism”. To the other side has been almost everyone and everything else, so that the offshore approach has always been turned back, at least until now. Where is the Obama administration in this great debate? We don’t really know; the evidence, once again, suggests ambivalence.
President Obama has rejected American exceptionalism as no American president before him ever has; he did so in London on 29 April 2009, when he answered a question as follows: “I believe in American exceptionalism just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” By relativizing what has always been an absolute, Obama showed how profoundly his image of America has been influenced by the received truths of the Vietnam anti-war movement and counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. If he has a theory of American exceptionalism, it is a far subtler, humbler and more historically contingent one than the secular messianist, attenuated Protestant version that has been common to American history.
The President also believes that downward pressure on the defense budget is warranted; his projected budgets show as much, though the prospective cuts are not draconian. But in this he joins a large, politically ecumenical contingent, so his views do not imply opposition to the forward-presence approach to grand strategy. And the fact that US relations with many of its allies, notably in Europe, have worsened during Obama’s tenure is more likely a consequence of the President being distracted than it is of any active dislike for either specific allies or alliances in general. Nor does his candid view that fighting in Afghanistan for another decade and spending $1 trillion doing so is not in America’s best national interest, mean that he is reticent about using force on behalf of strategic aims when it is in America’s interest to do so. Perhaps Obama accepts the forward strategy but will end up starving it of resources to the point that it will shockingly fail some crucial test—perhaps the worst outcome of all.
Taken together, then, the administration’s track record, encompassing the whole spectrum from discrete policy arenas to the lofty heights of grand strategy, suggests the foreign policy equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot. Observers can see in it what they have wanted to see. Some have tagged the Obama administration a re-run of the Carter administration, but the fit is obviously imperfect; it’s very hard to see Carter during his first or second year in office ordering those Predator strikes, even harder to imagine him holding his tongue on human rights. Some have seen a replay of Nixon and Kissinger: Realpolitik hiding behind feel-good talk about allies and peace and the rest, trying simultaneously to play an inherited weak hand and set the stage for a grand bargain—this time with Iran instead of China. Still others think they are witness to the second coming of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: a shrewd opportunist who knows the limits set by domestic constraints, and whose main concern is national economic stabilization and social strengthening against the day when American power must meet a true test of destiny. The name game can go on because, while no great successes have sprouted forth from the Obama foreign policy, no great debacles have emerged either.
A good deal of the seeming incoherence in any US foreign policy administration stems from management decisions made early on in a president’s tenure. How a president wishes to set up his foreign and national security policy system is a function of his personality, though, as we will see below, that hardly exhausts the ways that a president’s personality affects US foreign policy.
There are as many ways to set up the system as there are presidents, but, in general, a president will prefer either formal or informal structures, and either a big or a small tent of key advisers. The less formal and smaller, the more centered in the White House a policy system is likely to be; the more formal and larger, the less White House-centric a policy system is likely to be. Classic examples: president Eisenhower’s National Security Council was formal, systemically organized and sprawlingly large; president John F Kennedy’s was less formal and much smaller. Both models have at times worked well, and both have at times worked poorly; outcomes derive from the quality of the leaders overseeing the structure as much or more than the structure itself. But structure is not irrelevant. What a large formal system gains in coverage, the use of institutional memory, bureaucratic buy-in, and an enhanced capacity to both plan and implement it may lose in speed, flexibility and creativity. What a smaller, more informal system may gain in speed, flexibility and creativity, even to the point of enabling genuine boldness, it may lose in coverage, cross-issue coherence, bureaucratic support and the ability to implement its own directives.
President Obama has chosen the small, White House-centered model, and he has made clear that no matter how pressed he is with domestic policy issues, he and he alone commands his foreign policy system, not he together with his National Security Adviser as in most prior White House-centered systems. This is as far a cry as one can imagine from what Warren Harding declared after his inauguration in 1921, when he pointed to his secretary of state, Charles Evans Hughes, and directed all media questions about foreign relations to him. The problem is that one person, or even 35 key appointees holed up in the Old Executive Office building, cannot possibly manage the foreign/national security policy of the United States.
There are two and only two ways to handle the mismatch between a small decision system and an enormous array of decision points: prioritization and delegation. President Obama has left no doubt what he cares most about. He cares about ridding the United States of its combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan without jeopardizing rock-bottom US security equities in those countries. Now that he has seen the intelligence at a new level and in more detail, he is concerned about terrorism, which leads him to be particularly concerned about Pakistan. In turn and much related, he cares deeply about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, both to rogue states and to terrorists, understanding that either would likely be strategic game-changers. As already noted, he seems to think that the Arab–Israeli conflict, especially the Palestinian dimension of it, is more intrinsically linked to this entire problem set than it actually is, and so he has reasoned that the so-called peace process must be a high priority. In the beginning of the administration, too, Russia held a high priority because, as has already been noted, it was seen as an important tactical ally in dealing with both Iran and Afghanistan. China mattered as well, of course, but less for its growing geopolitical importance than for its role in the global economy.
For most of these priority concerns the President appointed a special envoy who reports directly to him. The envoy in effect for the wars is the Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, to whom he shrewdly delegated the gist of these policy management burdens—shrewdly because Gates, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration, gives him political cover from two directions: he blunts Republican criticism and to a point his presence distances the President symbolically from the wars themselves should things go wrong. His ‘envoy’ for all Russia/NATO issues is the Vice-President, Joe Biden, who thinks he understands them and apparently has persuaded the President as much.
This leaves nearly everything else—the care and feeding of various and sundry allies, Latin America and the Caribbean, most of Asia, all of Oceania, the Balkans, the Arctic, and a whole host of functional issues from ‘trafficking in persons’ to international religious freedom—delegated to the State Department. This puts the State Department in an even more minor position than usual, and tips its internal scales away from foreign policy to foreign relations, seemingly a subtle but really a significant difference because in a White House-centered system the State Department cannot act boldly or take major initiatives. This arrangement also delegates by default major aspects of China policy and trade policy to the Treasury and Commerce departments, respectively, and leaves a large dollop of policy towards Mexico with the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security.
The President’s personal style, of which more in a moment, has lent itself to this arrangement for several reasons. One is that he could place his key political operatives, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod (both now gone on to other jobs), closer to the policy action. Another, however, is concern that the inter-agency process in the Executive Branch does not work well. The subject was the focus of a major commission study before and during the transition, the Project on National Security Reform, on which several members of the incoming administration were involved—including both the President’s former national security advisor, General Jim Jones, and his first national intelligence director, Admiral Dennis Blair. The special envoy tack comes directly from that study.
As for the politics of the thing, President Obama is not yet persuaded that Hillary Clinton’s political threat to him has ended. His decision to appoint her Secretary of State, and her decision to accept the position, were both fraught with unexpressed but well understood political calculation. Turning Ms Clinton and the State Department into relatively bit players in the policymaking process was not accidental. The lack of genuine trust in that relationship also explains why the two July 2009 foundational speeches were so uncharacteristically uncoordinated with one another.
The administration has already paid a price for the President’s management decisions. To give but one of many examples, in July 2009 the president managed to rile a valuable ally, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, through complete inadvertence. Having unilaterally blessed the expansion of the G-8 into the G-20 in the face of global economic instability, he ordered members of his administration to seek the rebalancing of voting protocols within International Monetary Fund and the World Bank so that they might better reflect contemporary (and idealized) world power distributions. As he planned his own Global Zero initiative, too, offices at the National Security Council and State Department were busy continuing their work from the transition on how to reform the UN by reshaping the Security Council.
One of their ideas was to create a single European Union seat in place of the two owned by Britain and France. As is the way of government, each of these initiatives proceeded unaware of what others were doing. And so it happened that, within the course of about a month, three core symbols of what remains of French grandeur were attacked by the US government: the status of France as a nuclear power, the status of France as a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, and the status of France as a major player in international financial affairs. It is the job, in this case, of the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs to anticipate inadvertencies of this sort, and to stop a runaway policy train before it flies off the trestle. Phillip Gordon, the current Assistant Secretary, is particularly expert on France and knows Sarkozy; he even translated one of his books into English while working at the Brookings Institution. He was aware of the ‘perfect storm’ brewing in US–French relations, but whatever he tried to do to avert damage it failed to stop the French volcano from erupting—which it did when Sarkozy fumed aloud in the halls of the UN building about how the president was “living in an imaginary” as opposed to a real world. It was not easy to make the French nostalgic for the days of George W Bush, but the Obama team managed it. This is what comes from trying to run the entire foreign policy of the United States from the White House.
Read any serious history of American diplomacy and it becomes readily apparent how central the character of the president is to it. One of the great mysteries of understanding US foreign policy today in its essence is that, more than any other occupant of the Oval Office, Americans and foreigners alike simply do not have a good feel for who Barack Obama really is. Aside from being relatively young and recent upon the national political scene, he doesn’t fit into any category with which we are accustomed to understand intellectual and temperamental origins. More importantly, Obama’s ‘mentality’ is not only hard for outsiders to read, he is, thanks to the facts of his nativity and life circumstances, an unusually self-constructed personality. He is black in an obvious physical way but culturally not black in any significant way. He is a person who, finding himself naturally belonging nowhere, has striven to shape himself into a person who belongs everywhere. As his books suggest, he is a man who has put himself through more reconstructive psychological surgery than any American politician in memory. A few of the resultant characteristics are critically important for understanding how he serves as both president and commander-in-chief.
Obama has understood above all that he must keep his cool. His cultivated aloofness is absolutely necessary to his successful political personality, for he cannot allow himself to exude emotion lest he raise the politically fatal specter of ‘the emotional black man’. His analytical mien, however, has made it hard for him to bond with foreign heads of state and even with some members of his own staff. His relationship with General Jones, for example, lacked rapport to the point that it seems to be a major reason for Jones resigning his position.
But Obama’s ‘cool’ does not imply a stunted capacity for emotional intelligence. To the contrary: he knows unerringly where the emotional balance of a conversation needs to be, and it is for this reason that Obama’s self-confidence is so imperturbable. He knows he can read other people without letting them read him. And this is why, in parallel with the complex of his racial identity, he never defers to others psychologically or emotionally, not towards individuals and not, as with the US military, towards any group.
The combination of ‘cool’ and empathetic control helps explain Obama’s character as commander-in-chief. He is respected in the ranks for sacking General Stanley McChrystal after the latter’s inexcusable act of disrespect and insubordination. That was control at work. But US troops do not feel that Obama has their back. He thinks of them as victims, not warriors, and one does not defer to victims. His ‘cool’, as well as his having had no prior contact with the professional military ethos at work, enjoins a distance that diminishes his effectiveness as commander-in-chief.
Obama’s mastery at projecting himself as self-confident, empathetic and imperturbable has also compensated for his lack of original policy ideas. Whether in law school, on the streets of Chicago, in the US Senate or in the race for the White House, he has commanded respect by being the master orchestrator of the ideas, talents and ambitions of others. Many claim that his personality archetype is that of the ‘professor’, but this is not so; it is that of the judge. It is the judge who sits above others; they defer to him, not he to them. It is the judge who bids others speak while he holds his peace and shows no telling emotion. It is the judge who settles disputes and orders fair and just resolution. It is the judge whose presumed intelligence trumps all others.
This kind of personality archetype can succeed well within American politics. In this sense it is precisely Charles Evans Hughes, a former chief justice of the US Supreme Court, not Carter, Wilson, Niebuhr, Nixon or FDR who stands as the true forebear of Barack Obama. But in the international arena even the American president cannot pull off a judge act and get away with it. Wilson tried and failed (or was that a prophet act?). The American president among his international peers is but one of many, perhaps primus inter pares but certainly without a mandate to act like it. Obama cum ‘judge’ has not impressed these peers: not among our European allies, who are ill at ease with his aloofness; not among Arabs and Muslims, who think him ill-mannered for bad-mouthing his predecessors while being hosted in foreign lands; not among Russians and Chinese, who think him gullible and guileless. Obama may still be popular on the ‘streets’ of the world because of the color of his skin, the contrast he draws to his predecessor, the general hope for renewal he symbolizes, and his willingness to play to chauvinist sentiment abroad by apologizing for supposed past American sins; but this matters not at all in the palaces where decisions are made. As his novelty has worn off, he impresses less and less.
One reason President Obama does not impress the foreigners who matter is that he looks to be a figure in political distress at home. They know, as does the President, that his legacy will be forged in the context of the American domestic moment. Success at home can empower him abroad, but the opposite is not the case. That is why it is impossible to assess the Obama foreign policy bereft of its domestic political context.
When Obama entered office, the economy justifiably dominated his time and energy. Once he gained a moment to sit back and take stock, his attention flowed to what he cares most about: issues of social and economic fairness within America. Thus, even a man who has insisted on monopolizing his own foreign policy saw it ultimately as a holding action against more urgent and important domestic challenges. This explains the remark of a confidante of General Jones, that “after all that Obama had done to practically beg him to take that job… Jim had the sense that Obama didn’t really care.” Yet the decision to privilege healthcare over energy policy was a grave error, similar to the one president Clinton made in 1993 and, in reverse order of policy domains, to the one president Carter made in 1977. One does not come newly enthroned to a place like Washington and try first thing to tackle the hardest, most special-interest encrusted issue in town. That is bound to exhaust more political capital than a novice president can afford. Obama’s victory on the healthcare issue was meager on its own terms and decidedly Pyrrhic politically. It never grew the legs to burnish his image more broadly, whether at home or, except very briefly, abroad.
It soon became clear, too, that a man who bravely campaigned against the K-Street ‘transactional culture’, which he identified as the root of US political dysfunction, lacked the power once in office to do anything about it beyond decreeing a few feckless White House edicts about hiring lobbyists for executive branch jobs. When the President decided on the stimulus package, when he put together his first budget, when he needed the healthcare and then the financial reform bills drafted, what did he do? Having few ideas of his own, only the remnants of a campaign staff and, most importantly, very few close political allies, he had no choice but to turn to the Democratic leadership in Congress to commute these tasks. This, to put it mildly, is no way to fight the K-Street transactional culture. Foreign leaders saw this as well, and they saw the widespread (if largely unfair) charges of leadership forfeit over the BP Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The conclusion they drew is that President Obama is a weak leader, a conclusion that high unemployment figures, Obama’s falling approval ratings and the results of the mid-term election have since done nothing to alter.
Clearly, this is only one way that American domestic circumstances cast their shadow on American foreign policy in the age of Obama. As foreign policy has become both inseparable from and subordinate to economic concerns, these concerns play back on foreign policy from several angles. They bring pressure for a more austere defense budget, which in turn affects key planning judgments with major strategic consequences in the future. They promote concern about trade deficits and distorted international capital flows that directly affect US policy towards China and thus, at least indirectly, towards a dozen or so important allies.
Political weakness and the subordination of foreign policy to domestic priorities also join to explain the contours of the President’s trip to the United Nations in September 2010. The President devoted his yearly General Assembly speech to a political need: rebalancing a perceived lack of commitment to democracy and human rights promotion in US policy. Though delivered before an audience of prestigious foreign diplomats and heads of state in Turtle Bay, the speech’s real audience was composed of American voters in advance of the November mid-term election. The real business of the trip, however, was transacted in a private two hour meeting with the Chinese Premier, trying to convince him to realign the value of China’s currency in the interest of greater long-term international economic stability. The Chinese military is building fast; China is asserting its sovereignty in its trans-territorial waters in ways never before seen, all as the capabilities and resources of the US Navy are shrinking. But what takes pride of place in US diplomacy towards China? Trade and money. Is this shortsighted? Perhaps, perhaps not; it is, in any case, politically unavoidable, for if Obama does not raise the specter of tariffs, the US Congress will.
So we are brought to politics. An American administration may be compared to a tea ball within a teapot. The tea ball brings name and flavor to the brew, but without the liquid surroundings and the element of heat to make the whole thing boil, nothing much would happen.
Barack Obama is a master of the political arts. To expect such a man to simply set aside that mastery once president is to expect too much. Moreover, politics provides the unifying energy that binds the various parts of a president’s obligations and aspirations together. Its sources are manifold but its consequence is seamless. Just as one rock-solid reason that Lyndon Johnson persisted as he did in the Vietnam War was to protect politically what he cared about most—his Great Society program—so Barack Obama’s decision on 1 December 2009 to juxtapose a July 2011 exit date next to his decision to “surge” 30,000 more US troops into Afghanistan turned on his need, as he reportedly expressed it to Senator Lindsay Graham, “not to lose the whole Democratic Party” before major votes on healthcare and other legislation.
Some American critics have complained precisely on this point. It is standard practice in Washington to condemn the insertion of political motives into foreign and national security policy decisions. But it is not, because it cannot be, standard practice to actually desist from it, at least much of the time—and, if anything, Thomas Donilon’s elevation to the post of National Security Advisor increases the weight of political factors in the administration’s decision-making processes.
If we now try to put all the foregoing factors together, what do we find assembled? We find a president in a tough spot who most likely does not know if he is inspired more by Wilson or Niebuhr, because reality thus far has not forced him to choose. We don’t know if he is resigned to a strategy of forward deployment or desirous of an offshore alternative because he likely doesn’t know either, having never been posed the question in so many words. We find a man whose inexperience leaves him with an incomplete grasp of what he gives up by asserting such close control over foreign policy from the White House. We see a man whose personality does not function abroad as successfully as it has at home, and so cannot with brilliant speeches alone dissolve the conflicting interests that define the cauldron of international politics into a comforting pot of warm milk. We see a man commanding a decision system untested by crisis, and one whose core issues remain unfocused for all the distractions of other challenges in his path. We see, lastly but not least, a man whose political instincts are no more detachable from him than his own shadow.
From all these sources, bumping against and mixing with one another, comes the foreign policy of Barack Obama. Where the man will lead that policy, or the policy lead the man (the rest of us in tow), is now driven by the fact that the President is adrift conceptually since his initial engagement strategies did not succeed. Obama now awaits the crisis that will forge his legacy, but what that crisis will be, and whether the president will meet it with the American national interest or his personal political concerns foremost in mind, no one knows. No one can possibly know.