Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: Obama Foreign Policy Division

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.

13 Comments on “Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: Obama Foreign Policy Division”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I almost tend to believe America is the new early 20th century Germany, albeit with a covert silent manipulating hand rather than an overt, strong handed military oppression. American silently oppresses other nations by subverting them at various levels. Whether through secret and rigged trade agreements, occupation of foreign lands, silent tapping of communications (including Americans), drone strikes on 16 year old American citizens while traveling abroad (yes this has happened multiple times), a number of other means … how can anyone say they are proud to be an American today?

  2. stevepostrel says:

    Trade agreements are neither secret nor rigged–they’re negotiated (and mostly violated with impunity by trading partners when it suits them). The U.S. has lots of bases around the world but is not an occupying power anywhere in the world at the moment. So those rhetorical flourishes are off base.

    Surveillance? More of an aspiration than an accomplishment, given the problems of filtering through all those data to find what’s relevant, but yep, that is definitely happening. France, Germany, China, Russia, and just about every other government surveil everything they can, which is a lot. In France, they don’t even pretend that you have a right not to have your phone calls and emails tapped, etc.

    Drone strikes have indeed been a big part of U.S. counterterror policy. Neither Clinton nor Obama was willing to put infantry on the ground, preferring to rely on long-range air assets. In Clinton’s case, he loved firing cruise missiles. Obama has used UAVs in an anti-personnel role, along with piloted airstrikes. I’m not sure it’s terribly effective without combined ground action, but I’m less sure of the superior morality of less-discriminate artillery or bombing attacks on whole villages to get a few enemy combatants (which are allowed under the traditional laws of war). Just leaving hostile combatants alone, on the other hand, has proven to be a recipe for friendly casualties and the spread of violent Islamic supremacism.

  3. […] THAT’S NO STRATEGY. THAT’S A LIST. ”Much of what passes for “big picture” thinking in the White House is purely reactionary.” […]

  4. Larry E says:

    Well, we all recognize by now that Barack Obama is a trivial person, with no serious ideas or coherent world-view. He just has a certain low cunning, a sociopath’s charm — the ability to con and manipulate people singly or in groups. And he has a general set of grievances and animosities toward this country and particular demographics in it.

    So nothing useful to our country will come out of any Obama policy. Period.

  5. Leslie Watkins says:

    Yes, but at least the strategy worked for George for a little awhile at first. What continues to amaze me is that this administration apparently does not think of itself as the Great Satan. I have no way of knowing, of course, but I think the mullahs are taking the president for a joyride, as I cannot see how they (men who are as ideological as they claim) can go to their people and say, “We’ve made a deal with the Great Satan.” I like your score vectors, too.

  6. Llegar Tarde says:

    Excellent analysis. One quibble: “reactive” would be a better word than “reactionary.” That is, I believe you are arguing that Obama’s strategy is a collection of ill-considered reactions — not that he wishes to revive the old monarchical order, or that his politics resembles those of Joseph de Maistre, etc. I’ve notices that this new use is becoming more common but hey, I’m … of the old school.

    • stevepostrel says:

      Thank you for the suggestion. I was going for the double meaning, suggesting also that Obama was appealing to old-regime anti-anti-Communism and recent anti-Bushism, but perhaps that wasn’t clear.

  7. Walter Sobchak says:

    Excellent, if depressing article. Not only is the strategy severely lacking, but the execution is abysmal. Does anybody know how to negotiate? It seems to me that none of them ever completed a real world negotiation — like buying a car. The Iranians are beating Obama like a rented mule. The only real question after years of negotiation is how complete will Obama’s surrender be. And, Cuba has given up nothing, not even a high profile political prisoner for its part. The global warming negotiations at Paris in December should be très amusant. Will Obama be as badly humiliated as he was at Copenhagen in 2009?

    • Walter Sobchak says:

      Also on point:

      “Obama’s Grave Miscalculations” by Walter Russell Mead

      “Particularly in his second term, when the consequences of errors made in the quieter years before 2012 have begun to take their toll and the significant misjudgments and missteps made since the election have added to the chaos, President Obama is in danger of the achieving the least successful track record in foreign policy of any American president, bar none.”

  8. The only ‘big-picture’ people I know walk through cow pastures with their eyes on the horizon.

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