August 24, 2014

What Tom Friedman's Interview Revealed About Obama's Foreign Policy

In a recent interview with Tom Friedman (worth listening to in full) President Obama held forth for almost an hour on various foreign policy topics. Below I highlight a couple fascinating exchanges that I believe help illustrate some of Obama’s shortcomings as a foreign policy leader.

The first relates to Russia. Friedman, to his credit, prefaces the Russia discussion energetically making the case that post-Cold War NATO expansion was a terrible blunder (“we traded Russia for the Czech Navy", Friedman quips). Obama sits somewhat stoically through Friedman’s brief anti-NATO expansion soliloquy refusing to take the bait, at which point Friedman (almost slightly embarrassed) moves the conversation along stating that “it was before your [Obama’s] time...” Friedman then asks Obama point blank whether it’s time for urgent summitry among Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and himself to provide Putin a “ladder” as they sort through the Ukraine crisis (see the 31:40 minute mark). Rather than respond to Friedman’s entreaty for urgent crisis diplomacy (read: statesmanship) Obama goes into a lengthy disquisition on his view of how the U.S.-Russian relationship has suffered, waxing a bit nostalgic about Medvedev’s Presidency and such (during Obama’s first term), Putin’s “almost Tsarist attitude” during his last campaign and how the Ukraine situation “caught [Putin] by surprise….this wasn’t some grand strategy” (as if that last really matters regarding the current state of play, perhaps better to leave to the historians, no?). Obama then goes on to say he believes Putin post-annexation of Crimea finds himself with a “smaller and smaller circle around him” with “fierce Russian nationalists having his ear." While Obama acknowledges Putin’s poll numbers are “very high”, he apparently attributes that to Putin and his media having “stirred Russians into a frenzy” so that finding an “off-ramp” for him is “more challenging.”

We can debate much of the above, which I personally find an overly simplistic narrative that is too convenient in painting Putin as the sole bad guy in this affair (as Henry Kissinger has written, “demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one"). But it is what comes next in the interview which I found most fascinating: Friedman asks Obama if a deal with Putin is still possible? Obama responds thusly: “a deal should be possible but one of the things I have discovered during the course of my Presidency is just because something makes sense doesn’t mean it actually happens.” O.K., fair enough, but mightn’t we ask why not? Might it sometimes be because Obama has a second (if not third)-tier foreign policy team, incapable of executing serious foreign policy beyond airy posturing a la Susan Rice, Samantha Power etc., or the hyper-kinetic travels of John Kerry that while impressive regarding ‘road warrior’ cred, often amount to disjointed, haphazard efforts devoid of follow-through, disciplined vision and finally, true strategic backdrop?

Still, Obama himself is a not unimpressive personage, clearly an intelligent man. Why could he not like prior Presidents who have effectively engaged with foes (see for instance Richard Nixon with the PRC or Ronald Reagan with the Soviets, putting aside whatever else we make of these two former Presidents) be more directly and personally engaged? As of today's writing, Angela Merkel has had 33 phone calls with Putin since the Crimea crisis. Obama? Just five. The point is not that myriad phone calls are a prerequisite to effective statesmanship, of course. But too often Obama appears a study in passivity when it comes to convincingly helping spear-head ambitious foreign policy initiatives, as if he’s tuned out some and has become a bit fatigued of the Presidency and the concomitant world stage it commands.

A bit earlier in the interview, Friedman asks a similar question when it come to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis (see the 28:45 minute mark). Friedman, very accurately, points out that often Tel Aviv and Ramallah have historically needed the “American President to play the heavy”, so they can go back to their respective constituencies and basically say, the White House needs us to play ball here, let’s step up and make the requested concessions. Again, as with the Russia crisis above, Friedman suggests POTUS himself needs to energetically wade in. Obama’s response? He states: “we have been doing that behind the scenes…I’ve had some pretty tense conversations with both sides throughout this process.” I’m afraid this is rather underwhelming fare, so that one fairly might conclude Obama simply does not want—or apparently cannot really envision—grasping the nettle with more alacrity. Sometimes you have to do more than “send John”, after all, no? What follows after (again, similarly to the Putin-fare recounted above) is another lengthy disquisition on Bibi’s poll numbers, Abu Mazen’s weakness, concluding (as Obama puts it, a bit tritely and lackadaisically for my taste, especially given the gravity of the crisis and daily carnage in Gaza): “you can lead folks to water, but they have to drink.” And so it goes, the “peace process” or even robust enough cease-fire efforts (as with true summitry towards defusing the Ukraine crisis) appear relegated to the proverbial backburner.

Near the end of the interview, Friedman asks Obama what his main take-away has been from the Presidency so far. Obama reflects at some length, and ends up discoursing on three take-aways. One is how too often bright-spots are being overlooked (he cites Africa, places like Chile and Peru, even—somewhat unconvincingly—his supposed Asia pivot and deepening relations in Asia-Pac). Take-away number two is a bit of a Libya post-mortem, shockingly, Obama apparently needed the Libya adventure to be reminded that when we intervene militarily there are “unintended consequences” and that it’s critical to ask: “do we have an answer for the day after” (one might have thought this lesson was well illustrated by his predecessor’s calamitous Iraq misadventure, but I suppose one needs to learn lessons more personally for them to better resonate). But it is perhaps Obama’s final take-away which is most revelatory. He waxes rhapsodic about the U.S., clearly believing (and later in the interview explicitly stating) that we are “exceptional”, before baldly stating that “things don’t run unless we’re there.”

Putting aside the merits of a somewhat saccharine-infused belief in American exceptionalism (see the end of the interview where he overly simplistically caricatures the PRC as pure-play free-riders, and at the 59:20 mark seems a bit teary-eyed even about American ‘exceptionalism’) let us pause and reflect on Obama’s contention that “things don’t run unless we’re there”. Perhaps true. The peace process pauses, maybe dies. The Ukraine conflagration grows, maybe even more dangerously explodes, depending on Merkel’s diplomacy, Kiev’s posture, and Putin’s ultimate responses. Coups don’t get called coups, caliphates get created, China sees containment rather than an innocuous pivot, with potentially profound consequences. Things don’t run unless we’re there. So be 'there', then!

It is very easy to take cheap pot-shots at Obama. We must recall the alternatives would have been tragically worse. Even within his own party, as Hillary Clinton’s recent comments to Jeffrey Goldberg make clear, breezy certitudes around play-pretend muscularity are meant to showcase greater foreign policy gravitas, but actually too often indicate precisely the opposite. Indeed, we should commend Obama his caution, his rationality, his use of scalpels rather than hammers. By this I mean that a period of American retrenchment was well needed—almost inevitable—after the gross excesses of the post 9/11 Bush years. But Obama’s tragedy is that he has not accompanied a period of American retrenchment, even decline, with strategic panache (for instance, Nixon and Kissinger’s opening to China on the heels of the disastrous Vietnam War). He does not seem appropriately seized of the possibilities his office affords. Perhaps he would benefit from better thought partners, Joe Biden and John Kerry might be decent enough men, but neither are true foreign policy visionaries. And regarding his National Security Advisor, the less said likely the better, save that personally I would immediately terminate her given what appears to be near zero value-add emitting from that office.

Finally, I suppose, Obama can either essentially ‘run out the clock’, or urgently re-boot his flagging foreign policy. If the Friedman interview is any indication, one cannot help fearing the former is likelier. It is not that Obama is not a good man with good intentions. But many expected more than decency and 'lesser evil' plaudits, hoping for a more transformative greatness. Shame on those of us who did, I suppose, and better to keep expectations better in check moving forward.

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About Belgravia Dispatch

Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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