The one-year review: Why the “no-drama Obama” mantra can’t last

The one-year review: Why the “no-drama Obama” mantra can’t last

By Peter Feaver


I am surprised at how quickly President Obama lost confidence in the Afghan strategy he announced to great fanfare in March and how slowly and publicly (with daily read-outs and extensive tick-tock backgrounders) he is conducting Afghan Strategy Review 2.0. I expected that he would find it politically very challenging to maintain support for his war policies, but I did not expect he would make the job so much harder in this way. If this review results in (a) a sound strategy that (b) President Obama wholeheartedly commits himself to so (c) he spends the political capital necessary to forge a domestic and international coalition behind it, then the do-over will have done some good. But it feels like such a positive outcome is slipping away.


The best decision President Obama made in the foreign policy arena is one of the first decisions President-elect Obama made: keeping Secretary Gates. This step took some political courage on his part, because he had based his electoral campaign on a scorched-earth critique of President Bush. Keeping Secretary Gates and some other key figures (such as Iraq/Afghanistan czar Lt. Gen. Doug Lute) ensured a stable transition and meant that for the first half of the year there were very few transition-related hiccups. Given how difficult it is to change commander-in-chief horses in midstream, this is a great accomplishment.

Constructive criticism?

The aspect of Obama foreign policy that most concerns me may be the flip-side of the praiseworthy piece: how long it is taking for Obama to settle into the role of wartime commander-in-chief. It could be that the decision to continue the bulk of President Bush’s war council (and thus its policies) reflected a decision to delay taking ownership responsibilities for the war. To my reading, that is the connective thread that stitches together various problematic aspects of Obama’s foreign policy thus far: peddling stale campaign rhetoric long after its sell-by date; repudiating his own comprehensive Afghan Strategy Review and launching a new one; developing a tin ear for civil-military relations and wartime alliance relations; spending so little time explaining his national security policies to the American people; giving his political team such a prominent role in national security; etc.


I think it is highly unlikely that the national security team that is in place today will be in place one year from now. I would not want to bet which principal will leave, but the betting money is someone will leave. Personnel transitions tend to be associated with friction and other mischief, and the causal arrow can go in both ways: intra-team friction leads to early departures and new arrivals disrupt established modus vivendi. So my prediction is that the “no drama Obama” mantra will have proven unsustainable by November 2010. This is not something to celebrate nor is it something to dread. Every administration has to deal with shake-ups and I wouldn’t be surprised if President Obama proves he can deal with it better than most.

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