THE BLOG

Motion vs. Action at Foggy Bottom

04/14/2014 12:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2014
  • Michael Brenner Senior Fellow, the Center for Transatlantic Relations; Professor of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

Americans are congenitally movers and doers. That "pro-active" impulse is part of the national personality. "Getting with it," and "self- starting" and "can-do" are terms that convey the same ethos. Activity is considered a virtue in itself. That explains the high value that we place on extra-curricular "activities" or annals of an organization's monthly "activities."

Accordingly, we expect our political leaders to be on the go -- visibly. Think of President Barack Obama who constantly is scampering off to some town or other where a photo-op illustrates a short speech about technical education or wind power or whatever. Little attention is paid the substance of his ideas and there is no expectation that the trip will kick-start any serious initiative. These excursions evidently are meant to impress on the country that the President is earnestly working on their behalf -- the display of endeavor counting above all else.

This confusion of motion with action directed at a concrete policy objective is best exemplified by John Kerry. He has jetted around the world at a whirlwind pace that makes his peripatetic predecessor Hillary Clinton look like a coach potato by comparison. Kerry's compulsive commitment to hands-on diplomacy has personalized the United Sates' foreign relations to an unprecedented degree. All conducted at breakneck speed. The seems an unspoken faith that if you move fast enough, all accidents occur behind you. He, of course, does have short-term objectives but it is the process that has become all-important -- as witness the enormous time and energy expended on Palestinian "peace process" which from the outset has been devoid of real progress toward an accord -- and now predictably has sunk beneath the sands.

The media coverage of Kerry's non-stop travels, and most of the commentary, has been caught up in same confusion. It's all about goings and comings, the press conferences, the leaks as to what he will say, the leaks as to what his counterparts did say in inescapably brief meetings, and -- most certainly -- how all this is playing in the Center Ring back in Washington. Sober analysis of the issues, of where a given meeting fits into a well crafted strategy, of the linkages between place A in the Middle East and places B and C -- all are most conspicuous by their absence.

Hillary Clinton, in contrast to Kerry, was content with being in the limelight. For her, it was less about achieving tangible ends than it was about the image of stewarding American foreign policy. Her visits to 111 countries were as much celebrity jaunts as they were diplomatic missions. There is every reason to believe that the priority was burnishing credentials for a presidential run in 2016. And that is exactly how her performance was reported. It was the doings of a singular celebrity rather than the content of her engagement with thorny international problems that stood out. Her diplomatic record in fact is barren of any significant accomplishment.

American electoral politics has indeed become a branch of our celebrity culture. Therefore, so too has governance. Once Hillary left office, and she was anointed the inevitable frontrunner in the 2016 sweepstakes by the pundits, the attention she received remained constant. The New York Times went so far as to assign a reporter full time to cover "the Clintons." The outcome has been a series of fluff pieces punctuated by a cover story in the Sunday Magazine written in an effusive style. All this journalistic flow has not produced a single story assessing her record as Secretary of State, her views on current international problems -- nor on the spying scandals and other prominent domestic issues. When she declared that Putin, on the Ukraine, was behaving like Hitler in the 1930s, there was zero questioning of what this seasoned stateswoman meant or what policy recommendations might follow. Instead, we received the straight laced reporting that General Wesley Clark had pronounced that "There Hasn't Been Anybody In American History Better Prepared For The Presidency." This is what is known as "keeping your eye on the prize."

The excessive value placed on motion carries with it notable costs. Four liabilities stand out.
First is the neglect of thoughtful design. Sound strategy cannot be improvised. It requires time and reflection. Properly conceived, it does make provision for tactical adaptation -- from place to place, situation to situation, time to time. But those adjustments are made in full cognizance as to how the actions taken bear on the structure and shape of the strategy. By contrast, to act in a disjointedly incremental fashion without reference to the design is to risk bending it out of shape without intention or awareness of the implications. That is exactly what the United States has been doing in the greater Middle East. Problems are treated in self-contained fashion with quick tactical reads that ignore both the continuity and the connectedness of American policies. Credibility is lost in the process.

Are we pro-democracy or not -- with what qualifications and exceptions? Is concern about radical Islam really the one common thread in the various in looking individually at Iran, at Iraq, at Syria, at Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, at Egypt, at Palestine? If so, how do the pieces of American foreign policy in those countries fit together?

A second liability is the intrinsic risk of off-the-cuff remarks made in passing. The phenomenon of high officials' mouths operating in advance of their brains is a feature of our political culture. It stems from the same compulsion to proclaim one's presence as does the impulse to move and to do. Indeed, it is another expression of the confusion between motion and action. The tendency to make unconsidered remarks is accentuated by overstretched schedules and the attendant self-generated pressures.

John Kerry is particularly prone to the ensuing gaffes. The most memorable example occurred at the very height of the crisis over whether to bomb Syria for its crossing of the Obama "red line" on the use of chemical weapons. Intending to stress that the United States was on the verge of launching attacks, Kerry threw out the off-hand comment that that the only way for Assad to avoid that fate was for him to shed all his chemical arms. That gave Vladimir Putin the chance to propose exactly that as the key to resolution. Throwing Assad a lifeline also turned out to be a lifeline for Obama who has no stomach for another war and was on the point of precipitously tossing the decision into Congress' lap (a decision that he hadn't shared with Kerry). Kerry has been quick with the strong declaration that requires embarrassing backtracking on other occasions. His sharp retort in reaction to Putin's seizure of the Crimea that this was "unacceptable" and would have grave consequences in effect conveyed threats that, on reflection, Washington was unable and unwilling to implement.

Third, thinking through policy intersections and devising the subtle diplomacy for addressing them is dependent on a degree of concert that foreign policy by the seat of airborne pants does not permit. The principals of the administration's team are in a position to synchronize policy only where there is the opportunity, and the discipline, of candid exchanges. Communications among senior officials en route from here to there - interrupted by occasional stopovers in Washington for cameo performances before Congressional committees -- are too limited to serve as a substitute. Technically proficient, they are functionally deficient. As things stand, these officials find it hard enough just to stay on the same page of the hymnal when speaking into a microphone. Hence, John Kerry's repeated references last August to airstrikes against Syria that would be "limited and tailored" at the same moment that President Obama was pressing the Pentagon to come up with robust packages that would target Syria's entire military infrastructure. (Seymour Hersh "The Red Line and the Rat Line" London Review Of Books April 6, 2014)

Kerry's absence from Washington has the ancillary effect of freeing subordinates to indulge similarly their penchant for snap comments on persons and events. The State Department is not at all a smoothly working mechanism engineered to operate without direction or oversight. That truth was evident under HRC. Now it appears to be losing both concert and coherence. That exacts a price -- as the Victoria Nuland affair highlighted.

Finally, endless rounds of airport diplomacy deprive our frequent travelers from acquiring a full picture of their counterparts' thinking and attitudes. Yes, there is a lot of face-to-face contact. However, its focus is on the urgent in the here and now rather than the strategic picture. Despite the extensive schedule of visits to Middle Eastern capitals, we still seem baffled as to how the House of Saud is planning to square the many circles it faces in a political landscape at home and abroad shifting under their feet. Moreover, lacking a strategic vision of our own, we deny ourselves the opportunity to try shaping their perceptions in ways that align with our best judgment as to what configuration would best serve the common interest of regional stability. Instead we response to the voiced need of the moment: reassure the Saudis, keep pressure on the Iranians, cajole the Israelis, etc. This phenomenon is nothing new. After occupying Iraq for 9 years and implanting Americans throughout the government, we were continually surprised by the decisions of Iraqi leaders right up to the day that al-Maliki showed us the door. The same has been true in Afghanistan.

These chronic errors will repeat themselves ad infinitum so long as we approach foreign relations as a species of campaigning or trophy-hunting.