Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: Obama Foreign Policy DivisionPosted: June 30, 2015
An overview article in the Wall Street Journal about President Obama’s foreign policy, apparently fueled by White House image-polishing sources (such as noted foreign policy expert David Axelrod), brings to mind what Richard Rumelt called “bad strategy” in his opus Good Strategy/Bad Strategy. (I would have preferred to call it “anti-strategy” or “pseudo-strategy” to distinguish it from actual strategies that are bad, but we go to war with the terminology we have.) For anyone with a passing acquaintance with today’s world, the lead of the WSJ story tells the tale:
President Barack Obama gathered his foreign policy team in the White House Situation Room several weeks after his 2012 re-election for a meeting to set his second-term agenda.
Now that he was free from the politics of another presidential campaign, Mr. Obama told the group, he wanted a “blue skies” assessment of all policies worth considering, according to participants. Nothing was off the table.
What emerged was a sweeping and fundamental re-orientation of U.S. foreign policy, highlighted by four initiatives: conclude a nuclear deal with Iran; renew diplomatic relations with Cuba; elevate climate change to a national-security issue; and complete a free-trade deal with Asia.
This set of four disconnected initiatives, whatever their individual merit (my personal scoring vector: -10, -1, -2, 5) does not add up to anything like a coherent foreign policy or national security strategy. Not surprisingly, the WSJ article goes on in great detail to describe how the actual imperatives of the United States’s foreign environment–aggression and irredentism from Russia, China, and Islamic State, as well as the continuing battle with militant Islamic supremacists globally–impinged on and “crowded out” much of Obama’s agenda.
This dog’s breakfast of random objectives, even if achieved, would do little or nothing to make the U.S. stronger or safer or to advance American ideals. It is not attached to a serious diagnosis of threats and opportunities, strengths and weaknesses, or adversary and allied incentives. None of the four objectives materially reinforces another, nor do they work together to accomplish a coherent foreign-policy goal. While I could put on a debater’s hat and cobble together a diagnosis and guiding policy to which these objectives could be attached to form Rumelt’s kernel, that is not a debating position I’d expect to be able to defend effectively. Good luck, for example, trying to reconcile the elevation of climate-change objectives–which can only be accomplished by preventing emerging economies from developing along the same lines as the OECD nations–with a devotion to free-trade principles. A best-case scenario deal with Iran would inhibit that country’s use of nuclear power, a precedent that would also hinder the climate-change objective. Recognizing Cuba without preconditions sends a signal to the Iranian government that they can get what they want with minimal concessions, making a deal harder to close and ratify. And those are just the internal contradictions. The lack of contact, for the most part, between these initiatives and the actual pressing problems facing the United States is glaring.
What comes through clearly from this and other articles, as well as memoirs from Administration insiders and foreign counterparts, is how much of what passes for “big picture” thinking in the White House is purely reactionary–not to events in the world but to what are perceived as the sins and errors of past American policy. Anything smacking of the “Cold War,” whether it be opposition to Russian expansionism or to Cuban human rights violations, is automatically downgraded. Anything smacking of the “Bush Doctrine,” even such no-brainer moves as cashing in the hard-fought (and blunder-filled) victory in Iraq with a Status of Forces Agreement permitting a permanent contingent of U.S. troops to stabilize Iraq, is treated with negligence bordering on contempt. The problem, of course, is that even though the Cold War is indeed over (and even if you were lukewarm about it at the time) and even if Bush’s war in Iraq was a blunder, that has little or no bearing on the current situation facing the U.S.
The ironic thing is that in moving away from Bush’s counterinsurgency approach (population security, hearts and minds, build up indigenous state institutions) toward a pure counterterrorism strategy (assassinate enemy leaders) the Obama administration ended up doubling down on many of Bush’s legal and tactical innovations, such as broad surveillance of Americans and drone strikes. But that shouldn’t mask the fundamentally reactionary nature of the new approach. Unfortunately, countries cannot succeed with a George Costanza approach of simply doing the opposite of what they have attempted previously.