Obama thinks he can solve the world’s most intractable conflicts. What if he’s wrong?
Now that President Barack Obama has decided that the war on terror has entered a new phase, he plans to devote a greater effort -- in the immortal words of John Lennon -- to giving peace a chance.
That shift is already underway. The indefatigable John Kerry seems to be engaged everywhere: Syria, Israel/Palestine, and North Korea. Most of the time, talking is better than shooting -- and if America's efforts are focused and well-timed, the secretary of state could rack up a lot more than just frequent flier miles.
Whether Susan Rice's arrival at the National Security Council will make Kerry more risk-averse or risk-ready is not at all clear. What's undeniable is the Rice appointment will reinforce the White House's tendency to dominate, not delegate. The new NSA, a highly skilled and knowledgeable foreign-policy professional close to the president, is about to become physically proximate to Barack Obama as well.
Now that President Barack Obama has decided that the war on terror has entered a new phase, he plans to devote a greater effort — in the immortal words of John Lennon — to giving peace a chance.
That shift is already underway. The indefatigable John Kerry seems to be engaged everywhere: Syria, Israel/Palestine, and North Korea. Most of the time, talking is better than shooting — and if America’s efforts are focused and well-timed, the secretary of state could rack up a lot more than just frequent flier miles.
Whether Susan Rice’s arrival at the National Security Council will make Kerry more risk-averse or risk-ready is not at all clear. What’s undeniable is the Rice appointment will reinforce the White House’s tendency to dominate, not delegate. The new NSA, a highly skilled and knowledgeable foreign-policy professional close to the president, is about to become physically proximate to Barack Obama as well.
That’s even more reason to take a deep breath right now. Just as the pendulum may have swung too far to one side on counterterrorism, we need to avoid getting carried away on the diplomacy and engagement side too. With that in mind, here are seven highly questionable assumptions that often pass as Washington conventional wisdom about America’s role in the world today.
"All Conflicts End"
Not necessarily. Historic conflicts usually don’t have permanent solutions, they have temporary outcomes.
These struggles don’t end neatly: After all, they are driven by deep-seated historic wounds, usually with religious convictions thrown in for greater complexity. Their time horizons usually transcend the four or eight-year bite size pieces in which American presidents measure their political lives. They are measured in generations, not administrations.
There are indeed times when the United States has proven instrumental in helping the locals achieve good outcomes (see: Jimmy Carter’s work on the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, Richard Holbrooke’s Dayton Accord, or George Mitchell’s Good Friday Agreement). But these results have at least as much to do with luck, timing, and the calculations of the locals as they do with the schemes and dreams of Washington diplomats.
"Solutionists" hate the idea that United States can’t want a deal more than the parties themselves. And I can see why. It destroys the conceit that America has the power to impose things, even when the smaller powers don’t want it. But that line isn’t just a throwaway to avoid American responsibility. It’s driven by the powerful logic of ownership.
Its not that U.S. influence is irrelevant — it’s that the agendas of the locals matter more. In every successful U.S.-brokered negotiation, certainly in the Middle East, the parties themselves, driven by both pain and gain, wanted a deal or at least were prepared to accept one, given the unattractive alternatives. And right now, that doesn’t describe the Syrian rebels or the Syrian, or the Israelis and Palestinians.
"Trying (and failing) is always better than not trying"
No it’s not. Only in our "America the Indispensable" world could we believe that we should get credit for failing too.
It’s akin to the "old college try" or the "you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs" school of diplomacy. But American foreign policy isn’t the Harvard-Yale football game, and it’s not about breakfast.
Whether on the battlefield or around the negotiating table, failure has its costs. The most compelling ideology in the world today isn’t democracy, nationalism, or capitalism — it’s success. And that’s because only success generates power and constituents; failure produces the opposite.
None of this is an excuse for not trying. Rather, it’s a cri de coeur for thinking clearly before trying, and doing so with an unforgiving assessment of your prospects for success. Action and inaction both carry risk. The issue is how to reduce it. Failure can produce unintended consequences that can be worse than the original problem you’re trying to resolve — and it can badly damage the street cred of those who stuck their neck out in the first place.
One of the unintended consequences of the poorly planned and ill-conceived July 2000 Camp David summit was the descent into violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories — Yasir Arafat’s doing — from which the peace process has yet to recover. The lesson is this: The best of intentions combined with bad analysis and policy can produce disasters.
John Kerry is now involved in two high-risk and pretty low-return diplomatic efforts — to end the Syrian civil war and to promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace. The former is based on a sound premise – that there’s no military solution — and also on a slim hope that a peace conference can start a process that will end a civil war. And let’s not forget the American desire to look for any way to avoid militarizing its own role.
More likely, Geneva 2.0 will end up weakening the rebels and strengthening the regime. That’s because there’s just not enough pain and gain to impel the rebels, regime, and Russians to accept a diplomatic outcome, and insufficient leverage on Kerry’s part to force one. And paradoxically, if the political effort fails, it may well accelerate the very outcome the president wants to avoid — militarizing the U.S. role. Indeed, the rebels have a stake in undermining a political solution precisely for this reason.
The United States will likely fare a little better on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, partly because nobody wants to be blamed for saying no to the secretary of state. By borrowing a page out of former Secretary of State Jim Baker’s book — the "dead cat" approach — Kerry may be able to convince Israelis and Palestinians that neither wants Washington to leave this issue on their doorstep. But getting talks started isn’t the same as sustaining them: Another collapse could well leave the peace process not just dead, but dead and buried.
"Foreign Policy Should Trump Everything Else"
Really? Diplomats and foreign policy analysts and academics hate domestic politics. They think it is sordid, counterproductive, irrational, or all of the above.
According to this logic, the national interest is just too important to be left to the politicians, or the public for that matter. They also think it is far too pressing to allow other considerations — like a president’s domestic agenda — to constrain the United States from acting abroad. Instead, foreign policy should be entrusted to the State Department, where domestic politics are at best an inconvenience and at worse a pain in the ass.
As a product of the U.S. Senate, this isn’t John Kerry’s view — or it wasn’t during his time as a senator. His first major speech as secretary of state could have been an ad for my colleague Richard Haass’s new book, Foreign Policy Begins at Home.
And yet just the other day, in arguing the Syria issue with a State Department official and a prominent member of the commentariat, both made the case that the president must lead public opinion. Regardless of what the polls showed, they said, Obama needed to be bolder on Syria, providing military support regardless of what the public thought.
This notion that the national interest is a sacrosanct, quasi-religious object that can only be touched by the foreign policy high priests is not just silly — it’s simply not the way the system works.
Our political system was intentionally designed to be competitive. Powers are diffused, shared, and separated between the different branches of government. Lobbies, competing priorities, public opinion, and Congress all play a role. And on balance, it’s neither good nor bad — it’s just the way things work. Neither
the experts in Foggy Bottom nor those up on Capitol Hill run the show.
Our president sits at the top of the pile of foreign policy decision makers. But even he has competing interests that don’t make it possible to consider the national interest without also taking domestic politics into account.
On Syria, the president’s risk aversion is a driven partly by the absence of good options, partly by his own domestic priorities, partly by the polls that show the majority of Americans not eager to intervene — and yes, by Iraq and Afghanistan, among the most pointless wars in U.S. history. And guess what? Americans have figured that out, and it plays a role in their opinions about getting entangled in Syria as well.
"It’s Hearts and Minds"
Sorry, it’s minds and hearts. I’ve always wondered how someone came up with the notion that the way to change peoples’ minds about America is to appeal first to their emotions and only then to their sense of logic. Only Americans — with their self-centered, solipsistic view of the world — could have the blind self-confidence to think that.
Take the Middle East, where it’s no secret we have significant problems with public opinion. And forget for a moment that Barack Obama came into office promising a new dawn in U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world, raising expectations to stratospheric levels that could only crash down to earth when confronted with reality.
People may or may or may not like who we are in that angry region — but they clearly don’t like what we do. They are angry about our liberal use of drones, our support for authoritarian kings and Israel, and our lack of support for the Palestinians. Why do we think that by changing the wrapping paper on the gift box, even as we keep the contents inside the same, that we are going to win hearts and minds?
If you change America’s policies, then guess what — you might have a chance to earn Middle Eastern citizens’ respect and trust. It’s minds first, then hearts. But as I’ve long said in this space and elsewhere, U.S. policy in the Middle East largely isn’t going to change. We just have some fundamental conflicts and differing worldviews that aren’t easily reconciled. But we should at least stop deluding ourselves that we’re going to win a lot of friends this way.
"Obama Has Kerry’s Back"
That remains to be seen. I’ve argued for some time now that Obama is the United States’ most controlling foreign-policy president since Richard Nixon. He dominates, not delegates, a trend likely to be reinforced by Susan Rice’s arrival. A slew of political crises plus the press of business in a second term have forced Obama to give the secretary of state more running room. But how much isn’t all that clear.
Right now, Kerry has invested pretty heavily in two issues: Syria and the peace process. On the first, there’s little doubt that Kerry believes the United States must be bolder. What else could explain his improbable effort to cooperate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sees Bashar al-Assad not just as part of the problem, but part of the solution too. The only explanation is that Kerry knows it’s a long shot, but that when it fails his own argument for backing the rebels with arms and training or a no-fly zone will be strengthened — and that even Obama will be forced to accept it.
But on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it’s by no means certain that Kerry will get that far. Obama didn’t reset his relationship with Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu only to go to war with him six months later. All kinds of issues will prevent that from happening — the increasing need for close U.S.-Israeli cooperation on Iran and Syria and congressional midterms are two good ones.
Should Kerry set up a real chance to forge an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, the president’s willingness to take risks and fight with Israel might change. But not until then.
"Second Term Presidents Have Freer Hands"
No they don’t. Where this urban legend came from is hard to say. It sounds great on paper: No reelection constraints, greater latitude to do what they want on foreign policy. This myth is most frequently applied to the Middle East — but there’s no precedent for a U.S. president taking a major leap on the peace process, let alone fighting with Israel, in his second term. It was Ehud Barak who pushed Bill Clinton to Camp David, and if Clinton got mad at anyone there, it was Arafat and the Palestinians — not the Israelis.
The fact is that it’s the presence of opportunity that pushes a president to take risks, not the absence of political constraints. And in a second term, the pursuit of legacy competes with the reality of lame duck status. Presidents will take risks — but only on things that are important to them, and where they believe they can succeed. Legacy works two ways: You can be the hero or the goat. Barack Obama will only risk the latter if there’s good chance he can be the former.
"America Is the Indispensable Nation"
What does that even mean? Sure we’re the greatest power on earth. Despite the rise of China, our military, economic, cultural and political power will remain the envy of the world for years to come.
But power is one thing — the capacity to use it effectively is another. We never controlled the world, but we had moments when we could project our power wisely and effectively. But it’s been a bumpy road since the Bush 41 years, and our successes in war making and peacemaking have been much less impressive than years past. The world is more complicated now, and so is our own domestic situation.
We remain the world’s preeminent power. But how much success we’ll have in protecting our interests, doing good, and shaping the international environment won’t hinge on some "Indispensable Power." It depends on our will, skill, and of course on our luck.
America’s ability to alter the course of world events is going to be more situational than ever before. But hey, you know what? Even back in the day, we were never the world’s 911 call. And we are certainly in no position to play that role today.
Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2
More from Foreign Policy
Is Cold War Inevitable?
A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.
So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship
The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.
Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?
Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.
Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.
Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.