August 15, 2013
Obama's Foreign Policy: A Season of Disappointments
It has become a season of disappointments with Barack Obama’s foreign policy. It appears adrift, unserious, above all, lacking any strategic underpinnings, direction, or execution. A quick glance around the globe helps buttress the contention that something is rotten in American foreign policy, urgently requiring redress. But few seem to care, and expectations must remain low. Unsurprisingly, it is most fitting to observe the situation in the wider Middle East. Syria is perhaps most instructive, although Egypt has been calamitous too. Yes, of course, Syria presents the proverbial ‘problem from hell’. The ethnic, sectarian and religious fault-lines of the Levant are maddening in their complexity. Russia, Turkey, Israel, Iran (and her main proxy Hezbollah), among others, have critical interests at play. Yet we seem to have all but wholly abdicated the scene, rolling our hands up in despair.
A noteworthy example was the supposed “red line” around chemical weapons use. After extensive ‘chain of custody’ cogitations, Washington concluded chemical weapons were indeed used by the Syrian regime. But the Administration response seems to indicate it was not this “red line” that precipitated Washington being reluctantly dragged into possibly broader involvement, but the fact that the Syrian regime (along with its ally Hezbollah) had overtaken the pivotal town of Qusayr a couple months back. This victory better allowed for a band of territorial contiguity from Damascus to the Alawite coastal heartlands, while rendering Homs more vulnerable to regime re-conquest. This stark reality, rather than any ‘red-line’, was what appeared to put Washington on more of an activist footing, followed by the decision to have the rebels armed (I suppose I am purposefully using the passive voice here). Whatever one makes of this decision, here too it became a bit of a shambles, with de minimis provision of arms like MANPADs that might make a difference (albeit given prior experience in such equipping forays one understands the reservations), with mostly small arms proffered up instead. Even in this watered down variant, long delivery delays ensued as well.
The net effect was one of small conviction and spine but much contrivance and theatre: was there really a red-line, or was it the fall of Qusayr; were we going to robustly arm the rebels, or kind of half-ass it? And so on. Amidst all the policy-making as directionless, incremental half-measures, nowhere did one get a sense of convincing strategic purpose. Could we more creatively engage with, not only the Jordanians, but also the Turks, in creating safe-zones near those borders that would provide more international legitimacy to the opposition (disparate as it is), and create at least somewhat greater leverage and control over rebel elements, rather than the hardened al-Qaeda affiliated radicals whom through their brute courage and determination are now winning at least some hearts and minds? Was our diplomacy with Moscow robust and creative enough (deal-making around Tartous, as one example), or did it lack imagination and energy?
Yes, it’s easy to be an arm-chair critic, but it’s truly hard to avoid sensing that our Syria policy lacks any strategic direction undergirding it. If we wish to wash our hands of the affair, so be it, and let’s do so. At least this would be honest. But if we mean to have influence on the outcome, the mish-mash of “policy” we have seen to date is something of a mockery; playing pretend we are doing something convincing when really we are doing anything but.
But we should not have been surprised. We have seen similar cynical behavior before from this Administration. One example was of course Afghanistan. While Obama should certainly be lauded for looking to extricate us from this morass (which has now lasted longer than WWI and WWII combined), he did so only after a "surge" implemented after he already knew nothing remotely commensurate with a “victory” was attainable. Frankly every American service-person who died as part of said surge died not for a mistake we only learned about later, but one that was already assuredly clear to the Commander-in-Chief (indeed he’d prominently campaigned on such very themes). As Obama's own Secretary of State said many decades ago about another conflict in a far-away land: how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?
Meantime, in Iraq, again we must laud Obama for forging and executing a robust exit strategy. And yet, all sentient observers were aware to pull out the vast majority of U.S. forces would leave a tremendous security vacuum. To help alleviate the risks of radicals (both Sunni and Shi’a) looking to re-enter the fray, at a minimum the Administration should if anything have been doubly focused on the deteriorating situation in Syria, not least given the spill-over impact (in both directions) to Iraq. And East of Iraq, rather than West, we have seen a screaming lack of creativity with regard to engagement with Iran, even after the Rouhani victory. All the Beltway mavens certainly have earned their A minuses and B pluses for sanctions implementation, but to what end? Iran is closer to a bomb, our influence as negligible as ever, with the persons suffering the most Iranians on the street not complicit in the regime’s crimes.
Elsewhere in the broader MENA region, the latest policy foibles have been simply disgraceful with respect to Egypt. Egyptian security forces now on three occasions have mowed down innocent protestors in cold blood, the last episode constituting something of an Egyptian Tiananmen. There has been much handwringing behind closed doors in Washington, doubtless, but foreign policy on the matter to date has been delegated out to the Deputies level (albeit the extremely able Deputy Secretary William Burns) as well reportedly circular, non-productive calls between Secretary of Defense Hagel and the de facto Egyptian leader, Sisi. The National Security Advisor –whose skill-sets do not appear particularly compelling---does not appear to be brokering an inter-agency policy of any ingenuity or note, though she does ring up the President with bad news on the Vineyard ably. Meantime, the Secretary of State waded into the morass with the offensively off-base comment that the Egyptian Army was “restoring democracy”, when the truth was quite the opposite, given they have engaged in tactics that reek of a crude, fascistic crushing of dissent. Such Washington tea-leaves apart, fundamentally, did Sisi simply take the measure of Obama, and calculate he could massacre half a thousand (and counting) souls in cold blood, and not pay any real consequence for it beyond wrist-slaps to placate critics and such feel-good empty gestures?
What would matter to Sisi, or at least get his attention, is to put an end to the masquerade that we have not witnessed a bald-faced coup. Through it all, alas, apparently overly jittery about the implications to Israeli security (Sinai, Camp David Accords, Muslim Brotherhood’s Hamas cousins), as well the damage that too much non-ancien regime 'fluidity' in Egypt might visit on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (a rare recent success, with kudos due the Secretary of State, though Israel’s perennially poorly timed continued settlement expansion is not helping the lift-off much), we have not dared call the coup a coup. Legally, of course, the events of July 3rd were prima facie a coup, and morally too we should now feel well obligated with these latest mass killings to strip the Egyptian Army of the pretense there is some democratic interim governance in place beyond a fig-leaf masking the Army's brute putsch (see too the recent reinstitution of various military and Mubarak legacy cronies in key positions), all predictable fodder that I'd touched on before here. Regardless, however, if moral or legal arguments do not sway, even on realist grounds we should be designating the events a coup, as the brazen robbery of the Brotherhood’s ballot box victory--at such a critical juncture in the Arab uprisings—will now resonate profoundly with respect to the Islamic disenfranchisement narrative, with clear and present ‘blow-back’ risks to our interests, especially in the face of such horrific massacres.
Beyond MENA, the Administration’s track record has been little better. Any return on investment regarding one of the Administration's most touted 'signature' initiatives, the so-called Russia ‘re-set’, has been largely laid to waste in a fit of Edward Snowden pique (don't buy the spin other reasons were material to the decision to cancel the summit). Meantime, the NSA revelations have further harmed our moral standing (we clearly care not a whit about the privacy rights of ‘fur’ners’, as our friends in Europe and Latin America have learned), and Obama’s inability to execute on his pledge to close Guantanamo is not a tale of manifold complexity rendering it impossible, but ultimately a contemptible inability to grasp the nettle, strategically execute, and get the bloody job done. On China, the “pivot” too often smells like neo-containment to Beijing, and too little fulsome dialogue between the parties exists to provide a more constructive basis for trust-building between the existing “superpower” and its nearest rival. The point here is that strategic missteps (or, at best, disjointed, suboptimal execution) is not just a tale of MENA woes amidst the wild cauldron of the Arab uprisings, but has manifested itself in more 'structured' major power relationships as well, whether Beijing, Moscow, or others.
All this said, the President does have one thing going in his favor. The opposition party would have mounted an even more disastrous foreign policy, I suspect, proactively blundering about saber-rattling with the usual recycled neo-con nostrums, bogging us down in even more theaters than at present. Obama at least has spared us these indignities, ‘leading from behind’ adventures like Libya (and its ugly hangovers) apart. But it is not a particularly proud legacy to say ‘at least I was better than the other guy would have been’. This is not the stuff of a great Presidency, at least when it comes to foreign policy. Of course, there has been and is much work to accomplish at home, and while not the topic here, whether jobs, infrastructure, Wall Street reform, and more; we should not conclude the Administration necessarily covered itself in glory there either, beyond the easy myths that 'but for' pork-infested stimulus, QE-infinity and serial bailouts Great Depression II beckoned (this is not to take away from the gravity of the economic situation we faced in late '08 and early '09, nor some of the Administration's crisis management at the time, or indeed, the prior Administration's). But while I understand a great power can only remain so from a base of strongly rooted strength at home, and Obama’s apparent focus on domestic politics therefore is not ill-advised, it is another thing to look alternatively peeved, bored, listless and simply largely adrift on foreign policy. Leaders, whether Sisi or Putin, have noticed. We simply must do better, and please, this does not mean better, or more, speeches. It means strategic execution of statecraft in a turbulent epoch of geopolitical transition, one of the Presidency’s most solemn responsibilities, or at least one might hope, a solemn aspiration. And its manifest absence represents a season of disappointments the international community can ill afford at this juncture.
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Posted by Gregory at August 15, 2013 04:34 AM
Someone has got their hands on a thesaurus, but there's no meat on the bones of this essay. Better to arrive at some actual critiques- including suggested courses of action- than to hear over and over again that the President's policies are 'disappointing'. I can only imagine the author tired of finding ways to write this vacuously simple idea; I certainly grew tired of seeing it regurgitated in various forms by the end.
There are only two actual suggestions here. First, we 'could wash our hands of Syria'. A genuinely sophomoric suggestion- of course, there's no expectation that anyone would *do* such a foolish thing, ergo it makes an excellent attack. The upside, according the author, is that it is 'honest.' Not that it has any practical benefit whatsoever... of course, the author takes away with the other hand- we do need to do *something*, but having written so many empty words I suppose an actual suggestion would've been going to the well once too often. The closest thing to a suggestion about Syria is that we "[do] something convincing". Ya think?
Second, we could call the Egyptian situation a coup. The rationale here is apparently not 'feeding into an Islamic disenfranchisement narrative'. Yet such a statement cannot hope to improve the situation in Egypt itself, and it seems to me that by far the best hope of preventing such a narrative would be pushing the current crisis towards a resolution that does not sideline the Brotherhood entirely. There is a profound difference between trying to practically salvage a bad situation and 'nobly' speaking truth to power from a safe distance regardless of the consequences...
Every other criticism is devoid of a possible solution. Obama should 'do better' dealing with China. Obama should 'do better' dealing with Russia. etc. Ho hum.
It's easy to be an armchair critic, but it's an order of magnitude easier when you can't even be bothered to suggest other courses of action. Perhaps next time, pick one topic, and explore it with enough courage to reach a destination?
Kamron, why can't we "wash our hands" of the entire situation? You lack imagination. A trait you share with many in DC.
I dont even think that was a serious suggestion by the author, it was meant to suggest that our policies are worse than doing nothing.
Of course we *can* do that, it'd just be *stupid*. So I don't lack the *imagination* to dream of a world where we do stupid things, I just lack the stupidity to advocate for the US to pursue stupid policies.
But since you've asked, here's the simple answer: it's possible that at this moment, there's nothing productive we can do in Syria. Not saying that's necessarily true, but let's just assume that for argument's sake.
Does that mean that, going forward, there is no chance that we can take productive action? Of course not. We could be mistaken in our current assessment & understand later that we should act. Or perhaps the situation will change such that we see an opportunity to act with good results (either humanitarian or towards our own ends).
Saying that we don't have a useful course of action right now is one thing. Suggesting that we 'wash our hands' of Syria and publicly walk away would be creating a higher opportunity cost if we want to act later. Plus, it'd be damaging to our international reputation and credibility.
Which is why it wasn't a serious suggestion by the author, just a way of saying that he thinks Obama's foreign policy is worse than nothing. Without actually telling us what he thinks we *should* do that would so obviously help the situation in Syria...
Kamron, at this point in time not only do I not care about Syria, other than to wish them-the people living there-- all the best, I don't care one whit about the entire Middle East. And that is for two reasons...primarily: first and foremost the US, my country, is facing a monumental challenge to save its republican form of govt, its constitutional process, and finally to save a viable Middle Class, and so to be, threatened, upper Middle Class. I would not spend a dime on anything that distracts from that. Nor would I spend any emotional or political capital either. (and before you say it...I will....I have 100% confidence the nation can find oil to purchase as long as we have the cash)
The second reason I don't a fig what happens in the Middle East is a more traditional (though now mainly forgotten) reason. I do not believe the US should 'go in search of monsters to destroy'. I consider that the best policy, in general, for the nation. If one comes to my country....or near my country, in a threatening manner....I would reconsider my military position. I see no such monsters in world at present. I see gangsters. Capable of great crimes...see 9/11...but not even remotely capable of threatening the foundations of the nation. Unless we foolishly overreact, spend ourselves into bankruptcy, and try and make the entire world in our likeness. As we are trying to do.
In sum...I would not even "wash my hands"....I would just walk away. There is much work to do at home.
First, I think strong US isolationism would make the world a worse place, and regardless of how hermetically you'd like to seal that world away, we have to live here. Especially when cross-border issues requiring cooperation are likely to grow over time rather than diminish. You want to wait until the monster is at your doorstep? Id rather put it down as a pup, or better analogy, get a potential juvenile delinquent onto a better path.
Second, I think that humanitarian issues are important. "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing" suggests that 'do nothing' is a very questionable policy on moral grounds.
Third, in Syria in particular we have not spent much money or blood, and if anyone suggested that we do so Id want that proposal under a microscope. I don't see grounds for that sort of program now. But investing "a dime" -if it stabilized the situation or prevented a humanitarian disaster- would not only be the correct moral act it would also produce considerable ROI for the US in economic terms and in stability in a region where we have treaty obligations (or shall we toss those overboard as well?). Im not saying that every foreign entanglement produces a positive ROI for the US, but it's equally foolish to argue from the position that it's impossible for that to happen.
The gratuitous baggage that comes with the word "isolationism" is lost on me.
I have no desire to "hermetically seal the world away". Two oceans are fine with me...with a huge navy of ours patrolling the seas. Sure...let the monster be "at my doorstep". Then watch. That monster will have some might long supply lines me thinks.
Humanitarian issues are indeed important. I would recommend we do what we can...short of direct or indirect intervention. First off, it is none of my business in the end. And I have proven, repeatly, over the last 25 years or so, I lack the skills anymore to figure the right thing to do. I do not desire to be the cop or first responder to the world at the moment. I seek to be like China...or India, or Norway, or Sweden, or places like that. It is indeed a "questionable policy" from a moral perspective. But so is the policy you advocate....and we have been doing it your way for over a 100 years now. And I repeat my caveat...if a genuine monster does appear, ala National Socialism or Stalinsim...I would reconsider my position. But none exist at present...and trumpeting up Assad, or Saddam, or the Mullahs in Iran or the Levant does not do it for me.
And finally I repeat my main premise...'I think MY house is on fire"....this, it seems to me, anyway, to logically, and morally require ALL plans to be thought about anew.
I second Karmron's first comment on a well thumbed thesaurus. I'm sure the author finds most presidents' foreign policy moves disappointing and look forward to his suggestions on how FDR could have won WWII in 20% less time if he followed these 5 easy steps, to be named later. But this sentence takes the cake: "contemptible inability to grasp the nettle, strategically execute, and get the bloody job done" to close Gitmo. We don't even get the "5 easy steps", just rhetoric. Should Obama have presented a different strategy, who knows? And bonus points for the "bloody" Anglophilia.
Re: above critiques of this post:
1. I don't find rich vocabulary a hindrance to understanding or clarity, but hope you learned a few new words.
2. I don't believe post was intended as a policy prescription for U.S. FP, either tactically or strategically, but as an analysis of how our stumbles, lies, and ambiguity in the MENA region and our casting serious matters of substance as PR exercises have weakened us in the region and much more broadly.
3. On Syria: "...engage with, not only the Jordanians, but also the Turks, in creating safe-zones near those borders that would provide more international legitimacy to the opposition (disparate as it is), and create at least somewhat greater leverage and control over rebel elements..."
4. On Iran: Rouhani victory is an opportunity; we should actively engage.
5. On Russia: Forget Snowden, we have much more serious reasons to engage.
6. On Egypt: Would a coup, by any other name, smell as noxious?
7. There's more for the careful and interested reader.
" I don't find rich vocabulary a hindrance to understanding or clarity, but hope you learned a few new words"
Rich vocabulary can be deployed to describe nuance, or it can be used to attempt to impress the reader when the content itself lacks the ability to impress. I found this piece to be the latter category.
Perhaps you are more easily impressed with style and not particularly attuned to substance.
"I don't believe post was intended as a policy prescription for U.S. FP, either tactically or strategically, but as an analysis of how our stumbles, lies, and ambiguity in the MENA region and our casting serious matters of substance as PR exercises have weakened us in the region and much more broadly. "
Bluntly, it is useless to say that a policy is mistaken when the author either will not or cannot say how to improve it. "It is bad", said two dozen different ways, is not helpful at all. And it is not an analysis of how our stumbles affect things unless it describes how they are, in fact, stumbles. And this can only be done by contrasting them with other possible behavior which would not have been stumbles.
There is no way to square this circle- a critique of foreign policy must contain alternatives, or it's merely whinging.
As for the rest- let's just take one. "Rouhani victory is an opportunity; we should actively engage" isn't practical advice, it's too vague to even begin to be useful. It has the entirely useless word "actively" inserted to make it sound- manly? serious?- but it comes down to 'engage with Iran'. Which is part of the administration's policy now. So it leads to the actual serious questions: what's wrong with how we're engaging now? how should we be engaging? Id be happy to see details, but all I can see for your answer is "Actively, sir! We should engage actively! This passive engaging does nothing!"
That you believe this tripe to be a substantive policy suggestion explains how you found the rest of the article so compelling.
AH, it's the old, "criticism is forbidden unless you present a fully fleshed out policy and execution alternative." Where, oh, where have I heard that before. Talk about tripe...
Criticism is useless if alternatives aren't presented, since flaws can only be said to exist insofar as other possible policies don't possess those flaws. Not a complicated point, Id say that I was surprised you aren't grasping it but then you don't seem to be here for the conversation per se... it's a common flaw of childish discussions of foreign policy that results are said to come from 'more effort', eg that the President could create peace between Israelis and Palestinians by 'rolling up his sleeves and getting to work'. Whereas Id say, even if the criticism is that the President needed to give that conflict more attention, a worthwhile complaint would at least need to say where and how that attention should be focused.
When someone can't be bothered to provide even that level of detail, they aren't starting a discussion about foreign policy. They're whinging. Or maybe setting themselves up for an "I told you so" when things don't work out, as if their "clap harder" advice could've saved the day.
If I said that this article "wasn't good" and that the author needed to "try harder" and "grasp the nettle", he would have no idea what was wrong with his performance or how it could improve. By explaining my objections in detail, I make it possible for him to take those criticisms into account eg I specifically note that Id rather see an article on one subject, much more fleshed out- thus demonstrating a concrete alternative to his choice here.
Or he can ignore it. His business. At least he knows what the criticism is.
Of course, nothing is forbidden- yammer on to your heart's content. You are free to do so, but not free from being told that your content-free yammering is useless.
You believe that critique of FP is invalid unless viable, executable options are offered. I get it. This seems to me to come pretty close to saying that unless the author presents specific alternatives the current course is inevitable, immutable. I sure hope that is not the case, because, like Greg, I see our current course as directionless, unsustainable, and (in many cases) destructive of our own interests. Not to mention the interests of the objects of our attentions.
As to yammering on, shall we do a word count?
"This seems to me to come pretty close to saying that unless the author presents specific alternatives the current course is inevitable, immutable."
That in no way follows. The author's failure to discuss alternatives just cripples his critique; there is no causal way for his omission to cause our actual policy decisions to be limited.
If I tell you that Im having surgery to treat a tumor, and you tell me that this is a terrible idea -but can't provide any other options- then the advice is useless. But it doesn't mean that there aren't other options, only that by not presenting them you've failed to discuss my situation in a productive way. I don't just need to know that surgery is scary, or dangerous, or expensive- I need to know whether it's more dangerous/expensive/etc than other things I could actually do in my condition.
Im sure Ive come off like an asshole, but I actually have all kinds of patience for various positions when they're actually articulated. I have *no idea* how to fix Syria or Egypt, and every possible suggestion I could think of has huge pitfalls. If someone wants to toss ideas around about what to do, even unlikely ones, Im all ears. I just don't have patience for "do it better" as advice; I feel pretty badly for the people who have to make these calls, and am glad Im not in that position.
"As to yammering on, shall we do a word count?"
The quote was "content-free yammering". I would guess that each of us would judge the leader in that category differently.
Your definition of "content-free yammering" seems to be "any criticism of existing FP which does not contain specific, articulated policy alternatives." That seems to me unrealistic in a relatively short piece, and also dismissive of the creative or ameliorative value of criticism.
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” - Churchill
OTOH: “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.” - Franklin
" That seems to me unrealistic in a relatively short piece"
Thus my recommendation that he stick to one area and explore it more thoroughly- rather than say 'get creative with negotiating with Russia/engaging with Iran/working with Turkey'. Im all for criticism, Id love to see a post by the author with his policy suggestions for eg Syria fleshed out. And unless they're on the level of jonst's "screw Syria" suggestion, I even promise not to complain about them.
tks all for your comments. a couple quick items in haste. first, adams thanks for the kind 'defense-work'! Kamron, I hear you on the lack of concrete prescriptions, this was not goal of this piece. in future there will doubtless be posts that focus on one or two challenges w/ more concrete recommendations. search of archives might well manifest that. on style and big words, this always amuses me. I have no one to impress here. I don't use a thesaurus, well-thumbed or otherwise. truth be told, I write very quickly because there are massive impediments on my time. this is what comes out the other side of transom, it's just my style. would I like an editor and tighter, cleaner prose on occasion? sure. but I work in the private sector w/ often insane hours and have a family and this is the best I can tee up for time being. readers are welcome to not visit if the prose style too gaudy/flowery for them, i'm not unsympathetic. but trust me when I tell you i'm not trying to impress anyone w 'book-smarts' here, i could not care less. what interests me is keeping a toe in public policy debates and maintaining relationships w/ former bloggers i respect, as well whatever readers are still kind enough to visit if they find substance of interest here. more soon I hope on Syria, nsa, and Egypt, but perhaps on specific case by case basis! this post was meant to capture examples big picture of a woeful lack of strategic execution by the president and his team. tks all. gd
p.s. re JohnR CMH's comment, I would certainly agree more detail here would optimally have been appropriate, but the spirit of my gitmo comment was that massive amounts of concerted, hyper-focused, round the clock attention can reap dividends even over the thorniest challenges/issues (perhaps this is just a professional bias I'm bringing to bear). I simply do not believe Obama ever gave this his all, including his dedicated envoy handling same in past. as for 'bloody', I initially wrote 'damn' but thought it too rude! anyway, another item that i'd agree w/ kamron would merit a stand-alone piece, but I am not a full-time commentator, so must plead time impediments. i'm sure this all sounds a bit pitiable to the underwhelmed reader, but thought i'd mention the gist of what I was after in the gitmo comment, and why not further developed here. i do not want to appear a wind-baggy, crotchety arm-chair critic devoid of substance, if this is the impression this piece gave some, my apologies for having wasted your time. again, however, you are free to vote w/ your browser! best to all, gd