THE BLOG
10/13/2014 11:37 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Does America Have a Foreign Policy?

Sadly, the answer is "no." We have not had one since Barack Obama entered the Oval Office six years ago. That does not mean that his actions have been worse than his Bush predecessor's or that he has made more mistakes. That depends in good part on one's preferences and angle of vision. What it does mean is that the United States' external relations have not been guided by a comprehensive strategy based on a conception of our place in the world and a clear sense of our interests. Without such a strategy, purposeful actions informed by and meant to serve a coherent scheme happen by coincidence rather than intention. The potential costs of the resulting ad hocism and short-termism are now manifest in the Middle East where we are muddling through the IS/Iraq/Syria crisis -- and will continue indefinitely. It is impossible to foresee what we will do next, or even lay out a set of reasonable options, due to the multiple contradictions of our disjointed policies in the region.

Instead of strategy, we have seen a steady stream of slogans and homilies. In the first category: leading from behind, pivot to Asia, birth pangs of a new Middle East, the time-limited surge in Afghanistan, a "democratic, sovereign and stable Iraq," etc. In the latter: musings about a post-GWTO era; a nuclear free world; enlightened democracy is our collective destiny -- except in Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The only solid measures, sound or not, have taken the form of reactive moves forced by exigent circumstances.

There are three principal reasons for this state of affairs. Lack of experience in the Oval Office is the first. Barack Obama's interest in foreign policy was as thin as his credentials. He counted on the assets of a superior mind, a lawyer's talent for quick reads and cramming, and what he judged to be his true instincts. That confidence led him to downplay the critical importance of appointing to top posts people of integrity and competence who were at once loyal to him and able to speak candidly. Moreover, it overlooked the crucial need for strategic thinking -- the one attribute that his personal intellectual strengths could not compensate for. That thinking could not come from an intellectually sclerotic foreign affairs mainstream

An over confident novice, he stocked his administration with a combination of bona fide Establishment figures and amateurs who had latched onto the Obama bandwagon in 2008. National Security Advisor General James Jones was a rigidly disciplined organization man who barely was acquainted with Obama, and not at all an idea man. His successor was the dutiful Thomas Donilon. Hillary Clinton's credentials were as thin as Obama's. He evidently saw her as providing some sort of political cover while implicitly accepting the liability of filling the Secretary of State post with someone who'd be learning on the job -- all the time looking over the President's shoulder to her own political future. Impassioned John Brennan was installed as Master of the terrorism hunt. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was a Bush holdover who epitomized the Establishment perspective on foreign policy. He was there to mollify and to reassure. Leon Panetta, John Kerry and (disappointingly) John Hagel are cut from the same cloth.

Gates' hawkish views and conventionally conservative thinking about the country's security did not loom large for Obama because he himself has shown himself to be strikingly conventional in his own instincts -- rhetorical flourishes of idealism notwithstanding. He reflexively defers to the Establishment view of the world whether in regard o foreign policy, intelligence and civil liberties, or financial affairs. Oddly, Obama's manifest feelings of superiority are matched by ones of insecurity when it comes to the pillars of American society. That has meant prosecuting the GWOT as defined in the Bush years, and downplaying second-order consequences; therefore maintaining all inherited alliances on existing terms -- Israel, Saudi Arabia, Gulf principalities, Egypt, and now a maverick Turkey; substituting verbal declarations for action wherever the existing order comes into conflict with unpleasant new realities, e.g. Ukraine, Palestine.
The Obama habit of diminishing himself in dealings with the Establishment's movers and shakers has won him no respect. The prejudicial memoirs of his most senior appointees, now appearing in unprecedented numbers, casually demean the sitting President who tellingly responds by turning the other cheek. In short, they show the same regard for him that Bibi Netanyahu does.

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The landmarks of Obama's subjective foreign policy field of vision have included persons, ideas and institutions -- all reinforcing each other. He navigates in accordance with their directional beacons. The main organizational elements are the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies whose attitudes, for the most part, converge with those of the foreign policy Establishment. Hence, the Afghan surge wherein the brass, as orchestrated by Gates, in effect imposed a course of action on him that conformed to their ideas and careerist interests, cossetting the NSA/CIA, the trillion dollar nuclear upgrade, the metastasizing of the Special Forces into a semi-autonomous military cum foreign policy force.

In contradistinction to the Establishment elements, Obama simultaneously surrounded himself with an entourage of amateurs. They held mainly second tier positions in the first administration; now they are at the top tier. Foremost among them is Susan Rice whom Obama came to lean on when he selected her to be his on-call foreign policy adviser during the 2008 campaign. Her successor as Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Powers, is another. Then there was Michael McFaul, Ambassador to Moscow, who seemed dedicated to antagonizing the Kremlin to the max. They, like their colleagues, are academics and think-tankers who have scaled the ladder of power with astounding speed. They share a set of characteristics. They push for interventions nearly everywhere on the dual grounds of humanitarian principle and moral obligation to promote democratic movements against autocratic regimes. Hence, Libya and Ukraine. They tend to be diplomatically insensitive and unquestioning in the conviction that all America does is right and good and indispensable. They are uninhibited about taking on the Establishment types (e.g. over Libya) but ready to make common cause with them against anyone who advocates greater restraint and circumspection (e.g. Afghanistan).

Obama has thrown them a few juicy tidbits and high prestige appointments for the most part. Their pervasive presence and brazenness, though, complicates both the process of bringing coherence to foreign policy and making decisions -- something he is not good at anyway. They add to his indecisiveness and procrastination, and penchant for half-measures or contradictory measures, e.g. the Afghan surge, everything about Syria.

A more influential coterie of amateurs has been the White House political advisors. They were particularly powerful during Obama's first term when led by its Chief of Staff: the brassy, profane Rahm Emanuel. These politicos, mostly campaign holdovers, occupied the choke point between the President and Executive departments. Obama's old friend and confidant, White House super staffer Valerie Jarrett, figured most prominently among them. All foreign policy decisions had to pass through their fine political filter. Knowing little about international affairs, the informal council consigliore applied only one standard: would it help the President get re-elected? How would it affect his standing in the polls? The strong bias was to oppose any action that carried risk: e.g. the Afghan escalation, the Libyan intervention, standing up to the Israelis. At times this meant allying with the "interventionist" amateurs; at other times with the Establishment conservatives.

The administration's odd-man-out has been Vice President Joe Biden. Highly knowledgeable about foreign policy, if not a strategic thinker, Biden is independent minded and outspoken. Both traits make Obama uncomfortable. For the President tends to keep at arm's length people with conviction who might challenge him -- unless they are credentialed members of one of the certified Establishment groups. The flurry of memoirs revealing the workings of the Obama administration on foreign policy clearly demonstrate how often Biden was circumvented or simply ignored.

A third fixed point in the Obama foreign policy universe is a personal behavioral characteristic. He will do almost anything to avoid a direct confrontation -- at home or abroad; with persons or over policies. Any strong, willful party is accommodated/appeased so as to avoid a fight. (Weaklings opponents, such as liberal Democrats or Latin American reformers or the Palestinians, are another story). This dread means that the President will go out of his way to avoid speaking bluntly, much less coerce anyone who is strong and tough-minded unless they show equivocation and a readiness to accommodate the US. Thus, his backing away from criticism of Turkish President Erdogan, the autocratic Gulf monarchies, and -- above all -- Bibi Netanyahu despite their 00persistent obstruction of American foreign efforts. That helps to explain this week's spectacle of Vice-President Biden's bowing and scraping before the leaders of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, et al in apology for telling the truth in pointing out that all had provided aid and comfort to IS, al-Nusra and other jihadists groups in Syria until very recently. This at the very moment when Washington was desperately trying to prevent IS from shaking the entire region down to its foundations.

There is a matching domestic intangible: right-wing Republican hawks and hard-liners generally such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Obama somehow feels that they embody the true spirit of the American people, that they stand at the locus of public opinion -- as well as that they can cause him a lot of trouble. This same belief is evident in his domestic policy defaults. Oddly, these political hyper sensitivities continue even though he has run his last election campaign. Perhaps it is the evident preoccupation with his legacy that makes him so hesitant to deviate from what he sees as the custodians of American legitimacy. Perhaps he is thinking of those who will review his memoirs.

In the context of today's Middle East -- which would befuddle Talleyrand or Bismarck -- all of this means disarray and day-to-day actions taken by the seat of Uncle Sam's pants. Disjointed actions (or non-actions) taken serially do not serve the function of a coherent strategy and concerted diplomacy. Iran relations are treated solely in terms of the nuclear issue despite Tehran's criticality for dealing everything else that is happening. IS' backers in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are still treated with kid gloves even as it is depicted as the gravest threat to American interests in the Middle East and as posing an "imminent" danger to the United States itself. Administration officials remain at odds as to whether the primary enemy in Syria is IS or the Assad regime. Military operations and political maneuvering seem to have only a coincidental connection to each other. And all eyes are fixed on tomorrow and the day after with little if any regard to longer term implications.

Obama's initial decision to conduct airstrikes was justified in terms of a humanitarian imperative to protect the Yazidis, and to protect Americans in Kurdish Irbil from the advancing IS. He was explicit that this limited mission was restricted to Iraq. It was the imagery of the gory beheadings -- rather than deliberation -- that led to a revision of American aims. Overnight it became to degrade and destroy IS as an organization. That shift in reasoning meant a shift in the designated combat zone to include Syria. There, though, the stress was on IS infrastructure. And, as a sidebar, 46 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired at an unknown al-Qaeda offshoot, Khorasan, suddenly pronounced Terrorist Enemy No. 1. (The missiles missed their target -- except for 10 civilians). So, when the crisis of besieged Kurdish Kobane hit the headlines, it at first didn't qualify for help. Then it did. These quick twists and turns left little time to work out terms of engagement with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan who has his own ambitions, and without whose assistance Kobane was mission impossible.

These shortcomings have been exacerbated by the intermittent attention accorded the multi-dimensional problem by President Obama before it became a full blown crisis. The early decision in 2011 not to intervene in the Syrian civil war had the effect of dimming awareness of what was happening in regard to IS. Admittedly, intelligence reporting was flawed insofar as it was slow to pick up on IS' development, grossly overestimated the capabilities of Iraqi government security forces, and did not delineate the chain of repercussions to be expected from a set of reasonable scenarios. Nonetheless, the President knew enough that he should have set in motion the national security machinery with a sense of urgency. The seizure of Fallujah and Ramadi in December itself should have rung alarm bells in his mind. Instead, he downplayed the matter and in February even referred to IS as a "juvenile" terrorist group. No contingency plans were in place when the IS wave broke in June.

One is reminded of the story about the venerable Roman Senator who, in the midst of the tortured debate over what to do with Attila at the gates, solemnly advised that the only reasonable course was to "do nothing." Hooted at by his colleagues, he affirmed that this was impeccably logical since all agreed that "the Huns will stop at nothing." Remain inert and they will cease and desist.

Russia demonstrates a similar fragmented approach. First, the administration provoked Putin by its active role in promoting the Kiev coup. Then, it was caught completely unprepared by the Kremlin's move into Crimea and the eastern Ukraine. Confused by Putin's deft footwork, the Obama administration flounders between empty words and half-hearted deeds (the latter handicapped by European foot dragging). Europe will change; so have dealings with Moscow in adjacent regions. Yet, we see no signs of rigorous reassessment or strategic adjustments.

All this amounts to a foreign policy only by courtesy of nomenclature.