Nearly a year into the Obama presidency, it is time to gauge Barack Obama’s performance in the foreign and national security arena, assessing his policy, personnel and process. The president arrived in Washington five years ago with virtually no international experience and with conventional liberal views about American interests.
He has received deserved credit for ending or reversing some of the excesses of the Bush administration, particularly torture and abuse, pre-emptive military force and renditions and secret prisons. All of these had produced criticism of the United States at home and abroad.
President Obama has moved very slowly, however, in making genuine change in American foreign policy. A year after his inauguration, the administration is still searching for a strategic approach and voice as well as new ways to confront old diplomatic issues with Russia, Israel, Iran and North Korea.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the president, having assembled a weak team of advisers, is relying heavily on his own counsel. While Obama may be the smartest man in the room, he is untutored in foreign policy and has not been provided the innovative counsel he needs. As a result, the president can only be awarded a gentleman’s “C” for his stewardship of US policy.
Policy: Foreign policy has seen the greatest gap within the Obama administration over expectation and reality. The president’s inaugural address rejected the “false choice between our safety and our ideals,” and, soon after, President Obama vowed to press the “reset button” in those bilateral areas that the Bush administration ignored. A year later, Russia is waiting for the reset button to be pushed as it has watched the Obama administration continue to encourage NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, endorse a missile defense system in East Europe and encourage more troops in Afghanistan from former member states of the Warsaw Pact and even the Soviet Union.
President Obama promised a “new beginning” in Latin America, but continues to pursue the feckless 50-year embargo on Cuba as a means of leveraging political change. The United States remains the only nation in the Western Hemisphere without normal diplomatic relations with Cuba.
No new ideas have been forthcoming for resuming nuclear talks with North Korea, although Pyongyang has indicated that direct US-North Korean talks could lead to a resumption of the six-power process.
Personnel: President Obama’s most significant mistake was made at the outset when he named Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and Robert Gates as secretary of defense solely for domestic political reasons. We were told that Obama selected Clinton because of her uncanny ability to remain “on message” during the presidential campaign, but the secretary of state has demonstrated inconsistency in her public remarks regarding North Korea, Pakistan and Israel. Placing general officers at the helm of the National Security Council and the Office of National Intelligence deprived the inexperienced president of agents for change in these important areas. Finally, the appointment of a Hill veteran, Leon Panetta, as director of the Central Intelligence Agency signaled that there would be no reform of the intelligence community and that business as usual would mean that the day-to-day affairs at the CIA would be left in the hands of the National Clandestine Service.
In overlooking such stellar performers as former Sens. Sam Nunn, Bill Bradley and Chuck Hagel as well as current Sens. John Kerry and Jack Reed, President Obama deprived himself of an opportunity to infuse his administration with seasoned veterans and sophisticated observers. Richard Danzig and Larry Korb would have been well suited for the Defense Department; former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and perhaps Gen. Colin Powell would have brought some discipline and strategic thinking to the intelligence community or the National Security Council. In surrounding himself with inexperienced bureaucrats, President Obama implicitly suggested that either he would rely primarily on his own counsel or that he was hesitant to surround himself with strong personalities. Neither option bodes well for the immediate future.
Process: Before he understood or even studied the policy process, President Obama undercut his new secretary of state and complicated the international security machinery by appointing foreign policy czars in the most sensitive policy areas: Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan, George Mitchell for the Israeli and Palestinian peace process and Dennis Ross for Iran. Holbrooke, with his predictably sharp elbows, soon alienated Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, requiring the dispatch of Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) to Kabul to try to clean up the electoral mess that Karzai helped to create.
Mitchell has been treated shabbily by the Israelis, and instead of devoting himself to addressing the humanitarian mess that Israeli bombing created in Gaza last year, he is perpetuating the fiction of a continued peace process. Ross, with no deep understanding of Iran, never got in the front door in Tehran, and was eventually shown the backdoor of the State Department. He currently resides in the National Security Council, but appears to be absent without leave as US policy toward Iran treads water. A year into the presidency, it is clear that all of these issues have become greater problems with no obvious solutions.
Performance: President Obama performs well in speeches and prepared settings, but what he says is not necessarily an indication of what he will do. He reached out to the Muslim world in his inauguration speech and his Cairo speech, but there is no sign of a policy for gaining a resumption of the peace process, dealing with an intransigent Israel or promoting competitive elections in the Arab world. Although the president declared an end to torture and abuse in the first days of his presidency, the Obama administration successfully urged the Supreme Court not to review a decision of the US Court of Appeals to dismiss a civil case by four former Guantanamo detainees never charged with any offense. Obama’s Justice Department argued that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld could not be held responsible for violating the plaintiffs’ rights because it had not been “clearly established” that torture was illegal at the time of their detention between 2002 and 2004!
The president found time last year to travel to Copenhagen to make a case for Chicago as an Olympics site, but couldn’t find time to travel to Berlin to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. At that point, we received a good picture of this administration’s priorities. These skewed priorities as well as the troop surge in Afghanistan have contributed to the disenchantment of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkle, who disagree with the US president’s preoccupation with Afghanistan and his lack of consistency on Iran.
A year into the presidency, it is also clear that there is no one in the administration with a strategic vision. In the case of his most important foreign policy decision thus far, President Obama relied primarily on his domestic advisers in deciding to increase US troops in Afghanistan. This positions the administration for the 2012 election, but not for a solution to the Afghan problem. His predecessor’s preoccupation with Iraq is a partial cause of these problem areas, but a year later there is still no sign of a coherent, let alone strategic, approach to advancing US interests.
The handling of the Afghan decision also pointed to a lack of rigorous thinking in the Obama administration. In trying to appease both the right and the left in US politics, the president announced a troop surge and a calendar for a troop withdrawal. In their testimony on the Hill, it was soon clear that Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Gates had inadequate instructions for explaining this decision and ran into a torrent of legitimate criticism. Gates soon left for Afghanistan and told the troops that we would “win” there and then found himself in a joint press conference with President Karzai, who talked about US support for the next two decades.
Neither Clinton nor Gates have the required international experience to handle these overseas missions. In making his decision, moreover, Obama seemed to ignore Vice President Biden, who is opposed to a surge; National Security adviser James Jones, who seems to have no significant substantive role in the administration; and the intelligence community, which was not asked to prepare a ground truth National Intelligence Estimate on the operational and tactical environment in Afghanistan. In taking three months to decide to give Gen. Stanley McChrystal exactly what he wanted in troop deployments, the president merely poured old wine into new bottles.
In 1988, Sen. Bill Bradley took himself out of consideration as a running mate with Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis because he believed that he lacked a knowledge of major countries “from the inside,” not just at a briefing-book level, but from first-hand observation.
Bradley believed that a US president and vice president needed to understand the domestic and foreign pressures on heads of state before sitting down to negotiate with them. He also believed that a US president needed to know the leadership elites in his own country in order to properly staff his administration, as well as an understanding of the policy community in order to navigate for useful advice.
Few American presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower have had this international background, including President Obama, but the current president has failed to surround himself with sophisticated strategic thinkers who could compensate for the president’s shortcomings.
President Eisenhower warned in leaving office that he hoped his successors understood the inflated demands of the military-industrial complex and the machinations of the Pentagon and would not hesitate to challenge their policy demands.
Unfortunately, President Obama has reinforced the militarization of policy that has been in place since the cold war ended, which will hamper any genuine effort to strengthen Washington’s overseas agenda.