If President Obama’s White House days were ending, final judgments on his foreign policy would be harsh, though not quite as brutal as recent screeches from some quarters would suggest. But his days are not done. He’s got almost three more years to turn around or mitigate five years of inconstancy and incoherence. That’s long enough to repair a lot of damage and to capitalize on several of his key strategic initiatives that have yet to bear fruit.
The sad truth is that President Obama has often seen early light on central issues, only to fail in translating his insights into workable strategies. Quickly, he saw the need to “reset” ties with Russia. Obama knew Moscow was no longer a great power, but he sensed that it still was strong enough to help or hurt the United States in major venues. Alas, he never followed through with clarity, and the “reset” never took hold. Relations with Russia actually worsened, and now, after the Crimea crisis, the “reset” needs fundamental retooling.
Somewhat later, he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton grasped that overall U.S. foreign policy had to reorient away from a stagnating Europe to the economically and strategically dynamic Asia-Pacific region. Thus, he launched the “pivot”, or the “rebalancing.” Alas, by the time he had exhausted naming possibilities for the shift, he had lost critical focus and impetus.
President Obama was also right to conclude that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not serve the vital interests of the United States and were not worth thousands of lives or hundreds of billions of dollars. Laudably, he ended America’s combat presence in Iraq within two years. The problem, however, was that he inexplicably tripled the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan from almost 33,000 service members to nearly 100,000. The President had campaigned on the slogan that Afghanistan was the good war, yet he never articulated vital American interests there or developed a convincing strategy to cope with this historically turbulent country. It was no longer enough to rest the case on fighting al-Qaeda, because by 2009, it and other terrorist groups had already spread around the world. Now he is pulling out all but the remnants of these troops with little to show for 12 years of war.
Concluding the direct U.S. combat role in Iraq and Afghanistan was not the problem. Rather, it was the President’s faulty reckoning of how the drawdowns would affect American credibility and, in particular, the global per-ception of our willingness to use military force when American power is at stake. What should have been applauded as a sensible strategic recalculation of interests and commitments sadly came to be viewed more as meekness.
During and after the 2008 election, President Obama made reversing the U.S. economic crisis his top priority—precisely because he understood that domestic economic strength had become the main currency of international power. Inter alia, he pressed for renewed spending on physical and intellectual infrastructure, but was rebuffed by right-wing Republicans. Also to advance economic growth and U.S. power, he later pushed for new trade pacts but then put these on slow roll.
Time and again, President Obama’s sound and promising instincts for needed adjustments in American strategy have been sidetracked by crises or dashed by his lack of foreign and economic policy experience. In so many instances, his good starts fell victim to his inability to translate theory into practice.
Of course there have been exceptions, both for better and for worse. Iran is the good exception, Syria the bad. Though it took the President some time to conjure up the courage to deal with Tehran, he understood Iran’s centrality to cooling down growing Mideast turmoil. He properly started small, with essentially a six-month standstill on both sides while fundamental issues were set for stage two. Fortunately and unusually, he took pains to explain his actions and fought for his policy. No one knows where this initiative will lead. Obama, however, is pursuing a precious opportunity to control Iranian nuclear weapons with care and intelligence.
Then there is Syria. Here his words and deeds totally lack insight and plausibility. With the war barely half a year old, the President said that Assad had to go but had no strategy to compel him to leave. The “good rebels” he wanted to help barely existed as a fighting force. In time, Assad clobbered them. Then an even bigger threat emerged—the jihadi extremists—and Obama had no answer to it. His eventual “solution” was to try diplomacy in Geneva, the sole and obvious result of which was the exposure of American impotence in Syria.
Equally egregiously, President Obama drew a “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons. But Assad kept attacking with chemicals, and the White House turned a blind eye. Then he sent the U.S. Navy to punish Assad, only to call off the attack when the Russians cleverly proposed to eliminate Syria’s chemical arsenal. Since then, he has not restored a credible (and justifiable) military threat.
The White House has to dump its unachievable goal of removing Assad in the near term. Instead it has to fashion a working arrangement between that nasty dictator and the moderate Sunni rebels against the biggest threat to both: the jihadis. This will be difficult to achieve, but it has to be tried. Such an arrangement would also be conducive to establishing ceasefire zones and limiting the human devastation.
What is preventing practical shifts in Syria policy? What stands in the way of both retrieving the President’s floundering, and strong, strategic insights and concluding a good Iran pact? The key blockage is President Obama himself. The Obama operation is extremely closed off, centralized, and personalized. He has not demonstrated strategic skills, nor have members of his inner circle emerged as strategists.
There is no one in the White House akin to Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Stephen Hadley, or Dean Acheson. No President can function without someone of this proven caliber. Occasionally, he will call in a real strategist, but even then he doesn’t heed good advice. To his credit, he questions his subordinates with great intellectual ferocity and skill. Rarely, however, does he allow his own thinking or policies, some already packaged for public consumption, to be rigorously scrutinized beforehand. Even after a productive meeting of top senior officials in the Situation Room, President Obama is said to repair to the Oval Office with a limited group of personal advisers. He then makes up his mind in private and emerges to trumpet his policies—often only to trumpet them again later in a different key. This curious decision-making process sits at the heart of the problem, but it can be addressed.
With a broader group of advisers at his side, a group that he will listen to fully, President Obama should flesh out his impressive insights of yore. He needs to examine what America can and cannot do, and then he needs to explain how he will achieve his goals.
Refocusing on Asia is essential. Of course, Europe and the Mideast remain very important, yet it is clear that power has shifted eastward, mainly to China, but also to India and Japan. Their share of global GDP is more than a third and rising fast. Militarily, these nations are spending more and modernizing faster than any other foreign countries. Obama and his key aides clearly understand that solid trade pacts and sound economic growth are at the heart of the Asian competition. Right now, America has the sounder economy overall, but China’s is more dynamic. For America to remain the world’s largest economy in the 21st century, it must embrace comprehensive multilateral trading agreements in both the Atlantic and the Pacific that see beyond the narrow question of tariffs. As well as promoting growth domestically, the President must make it a priority to bring these trade consortia to life and to pursue an equitable bilateral investment treaty with China.
The strategic competition with China is critical. It’s foolish to deny or ignore it. China’s advantage is its capacity to command its borders on land and at sea. America’s main advantage is that it has allies, while China doesn’t. China has only fearful neighbors. These worried neighbors are looking to the United States, much as the states of the Middle East do, for protection. They don’t desire direct or unsettling confrontations between the two superpowers, and they certainly don’t want a Sino-American war. What they desire is an American military presence to counterbalance China and to convince Beijing’s leaders that American power in the region is strong, effective, and permanent.
In recent years, China’s strategy has been to assert itself, to establish new facts on the ground and to hope that the United States and others will not challenge them. President Obama’s strategy has to stymie and, if possible, reverse this pattern. Whatever the policy is called for political and diplomatic reasons, it will amount to a 21st-century version of containment.
The President was right to try strengthening ties with Moscow. Both countries needed each other on key issues like Iran, terrorism, nuclear weapons, Syria, and China. And in light of President Putin’s grab of the Crimea, it’s tempting to trash this whole “reset” agenda. Absolutely, Washington has to adopt a much tougher line across the board against the newly revealed Putin ambitions. (Mind you, the hawks have not been predicting a Putin takeover of Ukraine.) Some variation of a containment policy is needed, but it has to be one the European allies will go along with—not easy to establish. Bringing them along will require that some form of containment be rigged to a kind of détente (or “reset”). Integrating these two lines will be both treacherous and necessary.
President Obama apparently needs no lectures with regard to Iran. He is clearly aware of the stakes both in terms of Iranian nuclear threats against Israel and of Iran’s alliances with troublemakers like Hizballah and Assad. The President is mindful as well of the help Tehran once provided and is still willing to provide in Afghanistan. He is clearly determined to advance the nuclear talks and has done battle with the American supporters of Israel who loudly demand new sanctions. He has explained the possible benefits of successful negotiations forcefully, and he has convinced domestic opponents that he will stand up to them as well as bargain hard with Tehran. If this all pans out, successful talks could lead to the biggest strategic advance since the end of the Cold War.
At this stage, not many international leaders, diplomats, or foreign policy experts would bet on President Obama to change his ways. He has disappointed them so many times. But he has three more years in power, enough time to achieve genuine accomplishments. It doesn’t require genius to see how to fix American policy in Syria or to follow through with Iran. More exacting skills will be required to link concept and action for the “reset” and “pivot” strategies. The good news is that there are experienced voices inside and outside his Administration ready to give the President their practical advice. If he is willing to truly hear them out on how to bring his often good, but broad-stroke, ideas to strategic life, he should find moderate critics of all stripes willing to give him a second chance.