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Six reasons why “flexibility” might be a problem

Six reasons why “flexibility” might be a problem

Making foreign policy in a democracy is not easy. On top of the customary challenges of devising and implementing strategy in a complex international system, there are the additional factors of public opinion and the electoral cycle. These burdens vexed George Kennan so much that he came to disdain American democracy and despair of his country even being able to conduct an effective grand strategy. Similar frustrations sometimes beset contemporary commentators such as Tom Friedman, who express envy for China’s autocracy and its apparent ease of decision-making.

But as Kennan failed to appreciate, democracy as a system also brings advantages to the making of foreign policy. These include the legitimacy of public opinion, the collective wisdom that can emanate from the body politic, the moral authority of democratic consent, the collective resources offered by participatory government, and the occasional brake on folly that public accountability can impose.

It is in this context that President Obama’s recent open-mic embarrassment might be considered. When President Obama’s own "oops" moment happened during his meeting with Russian President Medvedev in Seoul, the White House no doubt hoped that it would be nothing more than a one-day news story. Now that a couple of weeks have passed since Obama notoriously told the Russian leadership that he would have more "flexibility" once he was less accountable to the American electorate, the issue doesn’t seem to be going away. Past hot-mic slips have been evanescent stories at best, but this one is likely to enter the annals of Obama administration foreign policy infelicities in the same file as "leading from behind," returning the Churchill bust to the UK, and showing the Dalai Lama the back door. The question is why?

In part this is because the White House itself is signaling its intention to make foreign policy a central part of its re-election campaign, which thus brings greater scrutiny on President Obama’s foreign policy intentions during a second term. As a campaign tactic this focus is unsurprising, given the Obama administration’s weak domestic and economic policy record. (The White House seems to realize this as well, hence the Obama re-election campaign’s sheepishness about featuring past priority initiatives such as Obamacare or the failed stimulus package). But there are several other reasons why the "flexibility" remark won’t soon be forgotten:

  • It recalls one of Obama’s first strategic mistakes. His 2009 decision to back away from commitments to American allies Poland and the Czech Republic while capitulating to Russian demands on ballistic missile defense secured very little in return from Moscow, especially in Russian willingness to pressure Iran on its nuclear program.
  • It highlights another past miscalculation. In asking Medvedev to pass the "flexibility" message on to President-"elect" Putin, Obama inadvertently highlighted the administration’s early failed efforts to boost Medvedev as the Russian leader while downplaying Putin’s ongoing repression and consolidation of power.
  • It raises more questions. What other types of comments or commitments has President Obama made to foreign leaders that hot microphones didn’t pick up? One hopes that the "flexibility" plea is an aberration, and that this president does not see the American people as an obstacle to his foreign policy goals. The Republican presidential nominee will likely be asking this question often for the next several months. [Unsurprising disclosure: I am a supporter of Gov. Romney’s presidential campaign].
  • It compares unfavorably with Obama’s predecessor. For all of the criticism directed at President George W. Bush during his time in office, foreign leaders and the American people always knew where he stood and did not worry that his public talk conflicted with his private messages. This contrast only further complicates the Obama administration’s efforts to blame Bush for their challenges while simultaneously benefiting from his policies. Notwithstanding the cheap shots at Bush by some recent Obama administration officials, the White House continues to follow many Bush national security policies. The White House’s continuation of the Bush administration counterterrorism framework and Asia-Pacific strategic alignments has been detailed at length elsewhere. Now the current benefits of bolstered intelligence collection on Iran that Bush launched can be added to the ledger.
  • It reinforces an impression of disregard for many of the American people. Perhaps most irksome about the "flexibility" comment was its implication that President Obama sees the American public as a hindrance. But this is not the first time that he has been caught by a hot microphone disparaging his fellow citizens. Recall, for example, his 2008 comments that some Americans "they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion."
  • It exacerbates concern among American allies and partners about the Obama administration’s reliability. Ironically, for all of this White House’s campaign rhetoric about improving America’s image and "repairing" relations with our allies, the reality is that under Obama our relations with most of our allies and partners on virtually every continent have actually worsened — yes, worsened — since the end of the Bush administration. The recent summit with Canada and Mexico barely covered over Canada’s acute frustration with Obama for canceling the northern half of Keystone XL and apparently blocking their Trans-Pacific Partnership participation, or Mexico’s anger over the thousands of guns flooding their country from the botched "Fast and Furious" operation. In Europe, the neglect felt by Britain and France is now compounded by their worries that the administration will look for an election-year off-ramp from stopping Iran’s nuclear program, not to mention doubts about the White House’s commitment to ending Assad’s rule in Syria. Japan and Australia find the administration’s abrupt changes of course in their region disconcerting, and Taiwan questions the White House’s commitment to its security. India wonders whether the administration will leave its region even more unstable by focusing on leaving rather than winning in Afghanistan, and also wonders whether President Obama genuinely sees it as a strategic partner. Iraq and Afghanistan represent two cases where the Obama administration has presided over the deterioration in the complex yet functional bilateral relationships it inherited in January 2009. Obama’s fraught relationship with Israel speaks for itself. And of course, Central and Eastern Europeans worry that Obama’s appeal to the Russians for "flexibility" will come at the expense of America’s commitment to their security.