The problem with reset-mania

If you are looking for a unifying theme to describe the overarching policies of the Obama administration, you will find it coming from the least likely source: Hillary Clinton’s State Department. I don’t say the source is unlikely because HRC is doing a bad job. She’s actually done very well. It’s just an unlikely source ...

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585362_090602_rothb2.jpg

If you are looking for a unifying theme to describe the overarching policies of the Obama administration, you will find it coming from the least likely source: Hillary Clinton's State Department. I don't say the source is unlikely because HRC is doing a bad job. She's actually done very well. It's just an unlikely source because for reasons that have to be more than an accident, the department itself seems to have become the equivalent of Dick Cheney's undisclosed location. It, and particularly the Secretary, is off the radar. Everyone in DC these days is talking about how she hasn't appeared on a morning show. The Hill had a piece the other day on "The Incredible Shrinking Clintons." Richard Holbrooke has a much higher profile than his boss. Certainly, Bob Gates has had a higher profile and even the nearly invisible Jim Jones has gotten more press recently if only because of the leaked articles about some of his early (and I believe overstated) missteps.

Anyway, the theme and the metaphor that ties so much of what has been going on is "hitting the reset button," made famous when just such a button was delivered, mislabeled, by the state department to the Russians who were the first focus of what has become reset-mania. In addition to attempting to restart that relationship with our former arch-enemies, you can see evidence of the same mentality everywhere. We are attempting to hit the reset button for GM and Chrysler by pushing them through the bankruptcy process (the same one we spent tens of billions to avoid months earlier). 

If you are looking for a unifying theme to describe the overarching policies of the Obama administration, you will find it coming from the least likely source: Hillary Clinton’s State Department. I don’t say the source is unlikely because HRC is doing a bad job. She’s actually done very well. It’s just an unlikely source because for reasons that have to be more than an accident, the department itself seems to have become the equivalent of Dick Cheney’s undisclosed location. It, and particularly the Secretary, is off the radar. Everyone in DC these days is talking about how she hasn’t appeared on a morning show. The Hill had a piece the other day on “The Incredible Shrinking Clintons.” Richard Holbrooke has a much higher profile than his boss. Certainly, Bob Gates has had a higher profile and even the nearly invisible Jim Jones has gotten more press recently if only because of the leaked articles about some of his early (and I believe overstated) missteps.

Anyway, the theme and the metaphor that ties so much of what has been going on is “hitting the reset button,” made famous when just such a button was delivered, mislabeled, by the state department to the Russians who were the first focus of what has become reset-mania. In addition to attempting to restart that relationship with our former arch-enemies, you can see evidence of the same mentality everywhere. We are attempting to hit the reset button for GM and Chrysler by pushing them through the bankruptcy process (the same one we spent tens of billions to avoid months earlier). 

Today President Obama heads to the Middle East to hit the reset button on our relations with the Muslim World. Problems in Iraq and AfPak? Hit reset. Frayed alliances? Reset. Economy in the tank, Wall Street a mess? To many observers the impulse has been less toward sweeping reform and more toward getting things back to the way they were (with modest changes). In other words: reset. Demonstrating that no issue is too marginal or too antiquated for the focus on resetting, you need look only 90 miles away to Cuba. We even seem to be approaching health care by trying to hit the reset button to take the debate back to the days before the Clinton health care plan cratered and set health care reform back for more than 15 years. 

Of course, the impulse to hit the reset button is pretty natural given the toxic nature of many Bush-era policies. And the reset button metaphor works for all of us in the information age and is undoubtedly better than suggesting that we cleanse ourselves of all the Bush dirt and toxins by climbing into the shower together.

But as any computer user knows, hitting reset doesn’t work all the time. It’s kind of magical when it does…to the extent that it seems inexplicable to most of us. But it would be a big mistake to make too much policy based on the notion that President Obama has — to mix metaphors slightly — the equivalent of the Fonzie touch, the ability to make a jukebox (or Bushed-up policy or relationship) work with a slap to its side. (I don’t think it’s mixing metaphors that much. The Fonzie touch is the ’50s equivalent of the reset button.)

But here’s the problem: if your computer is broken, the motherboard is fried, the demon viruses are at work on your data — the reset button doesn’t work. Same is true with broken companies, broken relationships, and broken global economies. Sometimes you may get signs that things are spluttering back to life but without real, material changes the problems will re-emerge. Sometimes you will get nothing at all.

In this respect, going to the Middle East to “restore relations with the Muslim world” sounds great in the reset context…Obama certainly achieves the main goal (and to some extent the primary deliverable) of Resetism, he demonstrates he is not George W. Bush. But it is unlikely to do much to actually fix the problem. It may help, to be sure. But many of the biggest problems that we have with regard to the Muslim world aren’t actually problems we created or exacerbated. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, the President’s two regional destinations, are anything like democracies…or for that matter are they home to anything like enlightened governments. Economic mismanagement and corruption are chronic and widespread and a bigger source of regional instability than many other issues that achieve more prominence. They are home to human rights violations, abominable treatment of women and tolerance of radical factions who are as big a threat to the Arab world as they are to the U.S. or any of our allies. These places are breeding grounds for risk to our interests and even doing the right thing and underscoring that the U.S. embraces Islam and all peace-loving Muslims, doesn’t get down to the hard business of resolving tensions between the Arab and Persian worlds, the Sunnis and the Shiites, radicals and moderates, reformers and authoritarian rules or Arabs and Israelis. 

Further, we need to remind ourselves that we are not the primary cause of the problems we face. We may have exacerbated some. There is no defense for Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, or for the hundreds of thousands of innocents who died thanks to our invasion of Iraq. But neither is there any defense for 9/11, terrorism directed at anyone, or state-supported hate mongering. Our support for Israel may inflame the Arab world but even when we acknowledge Israeli policy failures or brutality, even when we condemn them and work against them, we are only addressing part of the problem. 

As a consequence as President Obama wings off to the region, it heightens my sense that there is as at least as much reason for the leaders of the Muslim world to come to America to restore relations with us, to make amends and commit to change, as there is for the President to go there and do so. Indeed, there is much more given the level of dysfunctionality within their societies and their long record of miserable treatment of their own people.

Similarly, the reset button won’t fix GM or Chrysler. Admittedly, doing what we should have done six months ago, letting the companies go into bankruptcy and be stripped down to more efficient pieces will help. But U.S. ownership certainly will not (and has not…save for all that writing of big checks.) Merging with Fiat probably won’t either. I think the odds are pretty high that we will look at the U.S. monies spent on the auto industry as the most expensive golden parachute in history, designed to make the demise of failed companies as painless as possible and not really terrible effective at identifying, preserving or fostering value within either of them. There is a reset hope in all this — strip ’em down and let them regrow like a backyard shrub-but without creativity and truly new thinking, neither of which will come from the government or the labor unions who have gained too much sway in all this given their roles in creating the problem, these efforts will likely be frustratingly costly and unsuccessful. 

The list goes on. If there were core problems associated with the creation of new invisible unregulated risks in the global financial systems, even restoring growth to markets and the U.S. economy is not a fix. The risks will remain until addressed. To restore US-Russia relations really requires a fix in Russia and not here. To restore U.S.-Cuba relations to their rightful place in our foreign policy, we need to transfer it to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State responsible for the Caribbean, normalize, and start treating like we should in much the same way we handle Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago. In short, to achieve the ambitious goals the Obama administration has set and the American people seek, we need to rethink, reinvent and remember where the real problems lie…and not just hope that the world is as easily rebooted as our PCs. 

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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