- By Paul BonicelliPaul J. Bonicelli is Professor of Government at Regent University, and served as the Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United States Agency for International Development.
President Obama’s poll numbers have fallen considerably over the last year and appear to be stuck there. Some analysts are already talking about a legacy of failure in both the domestic and foreign policy arenas, especially if the Democrats lose control of the Senate this fall. I leave such predictions to others. What concerns me presently is that the president’s various problems undeniably are causing him to appear as a weak world leader. Such a state of affairs should worry all of us, regardless of one’s political party or persuasion.
Obama is under withering criticism — sometimes bipartisan and multinational — for his dealings with Russia, Syria, Iran, China, the Arab Spring, Venezuela, on Benghazi, and the release of five high-risk Taliban commanders in order to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Our allies are nervous and complaining while our enemies are exultant. Our national security is endangered when the president appears weak and when scandal management and deflection of criticism consume his time. The problem is compounded when he has put forward no grand strategy for foreign policy. The West Point speech last month fell flat. And "don’t do stupid stuff" is not a strategy; it is not even a policy, especially when you don’t follow it.
We should not expect the president to change what he thinks about foreign policy. It is very clear by now that Obama is strongly wedded to the views that he adopted long ago when he was a student, adjunct professor, community activist, and legislator: The U.S. should do less and rely more on others to bring order to the world. Call it realism (I wouldn’t), idealism, liberal internationalism, whatever you like — it is not making the United States more secure nor is it producing a more peaceful world, in part because it has him lurching from one misstep or crisis to another. Maybe the president is a genius and the rest of us cannot understand what he is trying to accomplish in the long run, but as Keynes said, in the long run we’re all dead. At least in this case, in the long run we appear weak and invite mischief.
Right now the president needs to reflect on his skills as a very good politician (I do not say that cynically) and adjust to the realities overtaking him. The Bergdahl affair — especially after the red lines on Syria and the misjudgment of Putin — should be sobering. The ill-advised rollouts and changing rationales offered by his foreign policy and communications teams after each action are taking a serious toll on his credibility. If he won’t change his tack and develop a grand strategy that sees him as engaged in the world with the same energy and interest with which he attacked health care policy, the president needs to at least make some quiet and internal reforms to stop the bleeding.
His first order of business should be to bring serious thinking and order to his national security council and the White House when it comes to foreign policy. Optics as well as process and substance can be improved by relying on people who are foreign policy heavyweights with proven track records — people who are taken seriously at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and in the diplomatic community. Their visibility is less important than having their regular counsel. Relying on others not in the Obama bubble might be humbling for the White House (Susan Rice isn’t likely to be pleased about it), nor for the president, but it is important for the president to acknowledge the problem and at the same time get help in making better decisions. He would not be the first president to seek reality checks from those who don’t have to fear contradicting the boss. And successful CEOs do this all the time informally among their networks of mentors, friends, and confidants.
Such a kitchen cabinet would have counseled against drawing red lines for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when it is obvious the president was not prepared to act. And such persons would have counseled against the quick flip to asking for congressional approval to attack Syria after a walk in the Rose Garden with the chief of staff, a move that everyone saw as too clever by half.
The rollout with the Bergdahl parents would have been nixed in favor of a presidential communication and a more careful wait-and-see attitude. If the goal of that blunder was to get the VA scandal off the front pages (and it is being interpreted that way here and abroad), it didn’t work and could never have worked. Wise and experienced hands would have known this.
These advisors could also help the president determine who can best represent him in the media, say, on the Sunday talk shows. They can help him craft his message so that his foreign policy can be safeguarded. He might not develop over the next two years a more fulsome approach than "don’t do stupid stuff" but he can at least get some counsel on what is the stupid stuff not to do. Of course all office-holders are concerned about the politics of every word or move, but foreign policy is too delicate to leave to the machinations of those who think mostly in political campaign terms. The nation’s interests and prestige are at stake and so, too, is the president’s legacy.
If the president had at his side someone like General Brent Scowcroft who served so ably as Bush 41’s national security advisor, I doubt we’d have experienced many of the blunders and crises we have these last six years. (Scowcroft’s efforts are chronicled in the late Peter Rodman’s excellent work Presidential Command: Power, Leadership, and the Making of Foreign Policy from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush. I’ve assigned it to my foreign policy students every year since it came out in 2009. Putting aside whatever you think of any of these presidents’ foreign policy ideas and actions, the lesson is well-taught in this book: The president alone is responsible for getting what he wants and how he’s perceived and can only do so by fastidious attention to detail and a full review and consideration of ends and means.) But that die is cast and the president’s official team isn’t going anywhere. The goal now is to get some folks in the room whose interests and understanding are about how the United States and its leader is perceived in the world because that perception is an element of power for the country.
Such a kitchen cabinet can freely advise the president and don’t have to worry about suffering the fate of General Jim Jones who resigned as Obama’s national security advisor in frustration after only two years because of the politically charged atmosphere created by too many campaign types having too much influence on policy. These advisers can’t be trumped or stepped on because they are simply friends and confidants of the president giving advice that he is free to take or leave.
Whoever among the supporters of the president is able to offer this recommendation should do so, and quickly. It would be a fine public service.