Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Five years is long enough to wait for an Obama grand strategy

The debate about the Obama administration’s lack of a Syria policy points to an overriding concern: the president’s lack of a grand strategy for foreign policy. Indeed, as Israel takes the lead in Syria, I think the Obama administration may not even regard having a strategy as important. As a candidate in 2008, Obama was ...

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

The debate about the Obama administration's lack of a Syria policy points to an overriding concern: the president's lack of a grand strategy for foreign policy. Indeed, as Israel takes the lead in Syria, I think the Obama administration may not even regard having a strategy as important.

As a candidate in 2008, Obama was forgiven in most quarters for not having a grand strategy. He was new to the national scene, and all the talk was about the economy. When he did talk about foreign policy, he said he'd get us out of Iraq, stabilize Afghanistan and then get out, pursue international agreements on climate change, talk more to our enemies through a series of "resets," and close Guantánamo, implying that the war on terror was ill-founded and no longer necessary. I suppose one can argue that getting us out of wars is a strategy, but to leave it at that assumes that the only threats we face are being bogged down in wars and that if we'd quit the international scene, all would be well. That is no grand strategy no matter what Ron Paul says.

The debate about the Obama administration’s lack of a Syria policy points to an overriding concern: the president’s lack of a grand strategy for foreign policy. Indeed, as Israel takes the lead in Syria, I think the Obama administration may not even regard having a strategy as important.

As a candidate in 2008, Obama was forgiven in most quarters for not having a grand strategy. He was new to the national scene, and all the talk was about the economy. When he did talk about foreign policy, he said he’d get us out of Iraq, stabilize Afghanistan and then get out, pursue international agreements on climate change, talk more to our enemies through a series of "resets," and close Guantánamo, implying that the war on terror was ill-founded and no longer necessary. I suppose one can argue that getting us out of wars is a strategy, but to leave it at that assumes that the only threats we face are being bogged down in wars and that if we’d quit the international scene, all would be well. That is no grand strategy no matter what Ron Paul says.

As a candidate in 2012, President Obama had the good luck to be opposed by a man with no foreign policy experience and who did not articulate very well what he’d do on those issues, so the president just doubled down on the tactics of his first four years. Add to all that the voters’ consistent lack of interest in foreign policy unless there is a crisis, and the president got to sidestep these issues for the most part.

But thoughtful observers and analysts wonder now in the fifth year of the Obama presidency what the he and his team intend to do about the myriad problems besetting the globe: wars, lower level conflicts, and a continuing terrorist threat that erupted again most visibly and most recently in Boston and Benghazi. Whether Obama is a realist or not has been discussed on this site (by Stephen Walt and by yours truly, among others), but trying to put a theoretical label on the president’s foreign policy approach does not tell us what he is trying to accomplish and why. Calling him a realist, an idealist, or anything else does not tell us what to expect from him as commander in chief. It might tell us how he intends to accomplish goals, but we don’t know what the goals are. After five years in office, we still have no grand strategy from the president. Comparing him to his predecessors reveals a stark deficit of strategic thinking and intentionality.

As grand strategists, some of Obama’s predecessors were stellar, others mediocre, but all operated strategically. Truman, Ike, Nixon, and Ford sought to contain communism. Carter wanted to do that, too, but also focus on human rights. Reagan determined to defeat communism while ensuring that the United States remained and grew more prominent as a beacon of liberty, the last best hope of mankind. Bush 41 and Clinton’s foreign policy was largely about managing the fall and transformation of the Soviet Union and its former satellites — and they acted determinedly to make the United States the catalyst for a boom in international trade. But terrorism was a growing and deadly threat for Clinton and his policy regarding it looks more like a holding game than a well-thought out plan to defeat it.

Enter Bush 43, who stated very clearly and repeatedly that the mission of this presidency was first and foremost to keep the United States safe by defeating terrorists and ending their effort to shape global politics. Importantly, to achieve this aim he intended also for the United States to be more than a beacon of freedom, to do what Reagan did regarding Lech Walesa’s Solidarity but to do it on steroids: support democrats all around the world with both moral and material support as a means to defeat terrorism and all other threats to the peace.

Agree or disagree with the policy, George W. Bush had one, and it amounted to a grand strategy. It was carefully crafted internally, and all agencies played a role in it — especially the primary departments and agencies that conduct foreign policy, including the development agency USAID and foreign assistance programs in other departments. For eight years, and especially after the 2004 inaugural address and the articulation of the freedom agenda, the goals were announced, the means to achieve them were devised, and the resulting policies and programs were implemented. That is, the Bush administration pursued ideas, funding, and assessment mechanisms and did so using both an executive branch and a Capitol Hill strategy. A grand strategy, if you will. The Bush Center at the president’s recently inaugurated library tells the story, at least in terms of what the public saw and experienced over eight years. President Bush’s former staff can fill in many of the details of how it all was planned and enacted.

These comments are not meant to be political shots taken at the Obama administration by a former Bush official keen to score points. Truly, this is a worrisome situation that the United States faces. Not since we became a great power, and indeed a superpower, have we been led by a president who has no clear goals for securing the people and interests of the United States from the many manifest and latent threats. He stated in his 2012 campaign that al Qaeda is on the run (but it is not); he treats North Korea, Iran, Syria, and the larger Middle East as distractions from his domestic agenda to be paid attention to only when he absolutely has to (but these are existential threats to US allies and serious ones for us); and he has no agenda to expand trade (but we need it given the global economic situation). He and his team appear to be so focused on the domestic front and to not follow the path of securing U.S. interests that Bush put us on, that one can arguably conclude that not only doesn’t he have a grand strategy, he doesn’t want one. 

As the leader of the free world, such an approach is not a valid option. We can discuss the economy as a national security matter all we want to, but that does not free the president from his duty to anticipate threats from abroad and devise a grand strategy, along with the Congress, to deal with them. We currently face rogue states that are building nuclear weapons and a Middle East in flames, threats that in their severity rival the Cold War. Perhaps these threats are worse because we are not dealing with what Jeanne Kirkpatrick called the steely-eyed realists in the Kremlin but fanatical regimes whose apocalyptic imaginings could well overtake their reason. 

It is time for President Obama to do the job his predecessors did before him: trying to shape the world to fit our interests. I’d settle for a bad strategy; at least it would demonstrate the willingness and ability to have one.

Paul J. Bonicelli is professor of government at Regent University, and served as the assistantadministrator for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United States Agency for International Development.

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.