‘Obama Just Can’t Say It’

‘Obama Just Can’t Say It’

Thomas Friedman’s piece in the Sunday New York Times was vintage Friedman: chatty, moderately insightful, and filled with quotations from his pal (and co-author) Michael Mandelbaum. The basic theme of the column was the limits of U.S. influence and U.S. interests in the Middle East. U.S. influence is down because the name of the game today is shaping the internal evolution of these societies, and outside powers will never be very good at that. U.S. interests are declining because the global energy market is changing and Middle East oil and gas are not as critical as they once were. As a result, what happens in the Middle East just won’t matter as much as it did during the Cold War or even over the past couple of decades.

Fair enough. But here’s the line that caught my eye, near the end of the piece:

"Obama knows all of this. He just can’t say it."

Why in heaven’s name can’t he? What’s the big secret that Obama or his administration dare not speak of? If Friedman can write about in the Times, why can’t Obama or John Kerry or Susan Rice or Chuck Hagel talk about it too? What is to be gained from keeping the American people in the dark about the changing nature of American interests and involvement in this turbulent region?

Indeed, if I were to fault the Obama administration on its handling of the Arab spring (and a bunch of other issues) it is that they never bothered to lay out a clear strategic framework that explains why they are acting as they are. As Friedman and others note, it is clear that Obama is deeply reluctant to get drawn into more Middle Eastern conflicts and that he prefers limited uses of force (drones, targeted killings, etc.) to grandiose invasions and costly occupations. It is also pretty clear that Obama wants to shift American strategic attention out of the Middle East and toward Asia.

But for the most part this gifted communicator has never tried to explain why this policy makes sense. Sure, he keeps saying that it is up to the peoples of these countries to determine their own fate, but he keeps getting dragged back into doing things he’d clearly prefer to avoid (and stay tuned for airstrikes in Syria). Instead of educating the American people about how global interests are changing and how our policies must adapt to reflect new realities, Obama tends to fall back on the familiar rhetorical bromides that have informed U.S. grand strategy for decades: democracy, human rights, stability, order, rejection of extremism, and, of course, American leadership. 

But then what we get are a series of ad hoc responses and a grab bag of justifications. First we are going to stay out of Libya, and then we get involved, and then we write it off (more or less). Then we help usher Mubarak out (because we think that’s the way history is running), but then we refuse to call a military coup by its right name and acquiesce in the reimposition of Mubarak-lite. We ratchet up the rhetoric on Syria but limit our direct involvement to humanitarian aid and covert assistance, while turning a blind eye to continued oppression in places like Bahrain. And so on.

The problem with this ad hoc approach to policy formation is it leaves the administration perennially buffeted by events and vulnerable to pressure from all those factions, interest groups, GOP politicians, and ambitious policy wonks who think they know what ought to be done. If you don’t explain what you are trying to do and why it makes sense, it is hard for anyone to get behind the policy or see the common thread behind each separate decision. By failing to lay out a clear set of principles — which in this case means explaining to the American people the basic points that Friedman made and why it doesn’t make sense for the US to toss a lot of resources into these various struggles — Obama & Co. end up looking inconsistent, confused, and indecisive.  

By the way, laying out a clear set of strategic principles wouldn’t force the country into a rigid political straightjacket. Sometimes broad goals have to adapt to particular circumstances, and foreign policymakers often have to accept what is possible rather than what is ideal. But if you don’t explain what your underlying objectives are, why those objectives are the right ones, and how your polices are on balance going to move us in the right direction, then you are giving your political opponents a free gift and your supporters little with which to defend you.

In other words, if Friedman is correct that President Obama and his advisors really do "know all this," it would be in their interest to explain it to the country. And not just in one of those stand-alone speechifying moments that Obama likes so much, but over and over and over. Who knows? Americans might like hearing the president explain why this part of the world is less important than it used to be and why Americans can start focusing their worries somewhere else.