Stephen M. Walt

‘Events, dear boy, events’

When asked what sort of thing was most likely to blow governments off course, British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan famously replied, "Events, dear boy, events." I thought of that line as I was reflecting on the series of bad bounces that the Obama administration has experienced in recent weeks, most notably in the case of ...

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

When asked what sort of thing was most likely to blow governments off course, British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan famously replied, "Events, dear boy, events." I thought of that line as I was reflecting on the series of bad bounces that the Obama administration has experienced in recent weeks, most notably in the case of the BP blow-out and oil leak down in the Gulf of Mexico. I think there’s a broader lesson there, however, so permit me to briefly ascend one of my familiar soap-boxes.

One of the many reasons I think the United States should adopt a more restrained grand strategy is the fact that our current level of (over)-commitment leaves us with little latitude for dealing with surprises. Presidents think they can set an ambitious foreign and domestic agenda and then just proceed to implement it. They know they will face various obstacles along the way, but they forget that they will also have to spend enormous amounts of time on problems that  just come out of nowhere. But if you’re already trying to do too much, then there’s no time to handle anything else and either the new problems get bungled or your original goals have to be sacrificed.

Lord knows I have a certain sympathy for the Obama team, insofar as they inherited a very tough situation. But from the start they’ve acted as if they could do everything at once, didn’t need to set priorities, and didn’t really need to have a clear and well-articulated strategy for achieving their various lofty goals. As I noted last week, their new National Security Strategy devotes a lot of lip-service to relying more on partnerships, institutions, etc., but it still sees the United States deeply engaged virtually everywhere and it anticipates Washington retaining the lead role on most if not all major issues. It is decidely not a document that anticipates our doing less.

The obvious danger with an overcrowded agenda is that there’s no slack in the system when the inevitable surprises occur. Nobody expected an oil well to blow in the Gulf of Mexico, but that unforeseen event is going to consume a lot of Obama’s time and energy and limit his ability to act in other areas. (He’s already canceled a trip to Indonesia for the second time). Meanwhile, the U.S. military is stretched to the max in Iraq and Afghanistan (in part because Obama foolishly decided to double down in the latter), and Secretary of Defense Gates is now telling the Pentagon to start cutting costs in order to keep those wars going. North Korea has raised the temperature in East Asia, the Prime Minister of Japan has just resigned, relations with Turkey ain’t so hot, and the administration’s tepid response to the Gaza flotilla debacle is putting the last nail in the coffin of Obama’s "New Beginning" with the Arab and Islamic world.    

I’m sure the Obama team feels like they can’t catch a break right now, but unpleasant surprises happen all the time and they should have planned for that reality even if they didn’t know exactly what the nature of  the surprise would be. One good reason to plan on doing a bit less is so that we have the capacity to handle the stuff that just happens.

P.S. I don’t have much to add to my earlier comments on the Gaza Flotilla, but I did want to alert readers to a very clear-eyed and unsentimental analysis of the incident by M.J. Rosenberg of Media Matters for America. It’s about the most sensible thing I’ve read yet, and is well worth your attention. Plus, Glenn Beck attacked it on his show last night, which virtually guarantees that M.J. is right.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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