Shadow Government

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

What Is the Obama Administration’s Diagnosis of Its Foreign-Policy Problems?

When things are going poorly for an administration, one of the hardest things for insiders to discern is whether they have a communications problem or a policy problem. Do they have the policy basically right, but they are not effectively rebutting critics with convincing explanations of what they are trying to do and why? Or ...

Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

When things are going poorly for an administration, one of the hardest things for insiders to discern is whether they have a communications problem or a policy problem. Do they have the policy basically right, but they are not effectively rebutting critics with convincing explanations of what they are trying to do and why? Or is the policy itself flawed, so no amount of explanation -- no amount of spin -- could salvage it? And if it is a policy problem, is the problem principally one of strategy -- the wrong ends or an ends-means gap or flawed theories of cause and effect -- or one of execution of a generally sound strategy?

Of course, these are not mutually exclusive categories. When things are going really poorly, as they are right now for Barack Obama administration, the answer can be "all of the above." Yet it is usually the case that one element is the shakiest and thus the highest priority for senior-level attention.

If it is primarily a communications problem, then the appropriate response is to better deploy the administration's unrivaled capacity to lead the public discussion. No administration is all-powerful, of course, and over the past several decades generally presidents have seen an erosion of their capacity to dominate the information space. Even so, there is no single actor better positioned to move the needle than the president, especially when it comes to foreign policy.

When things are going poorly for an administration, one of the hardest things for insiders to discern is whether they have a communications problem or a policy problem. Do they have the policy basically right, but they are not effectively rebutting critics with convincing explanations of what they are trying to do and why? Or is the policy itself flawed, so no amount of explanation — no amount of spin — could salvage it? And if it is a policy problem, is the problem principally one of strategy — the wrong ends or an ends-means gap or flawed theories of cause and effect — or one of execution of a generally sound strategy?

Of course, these are not mutually exclusive categories. When things are going really poorly, as they are right now for Barack Obama administration, the answer can be "all of the above." Yet it is usually the case that one element is the shakiest and thus the highest priority for senior-level attention.

If it is primarily a communications problem, then the appropriate response is to better deploy the administration’s unrivaled capacity to lead the public discussion. No administration is all-powerful, of course, and over the past several decades generally presidents have seen an erosion of their capacity to dominate the information space. Even so, there is no single actor better positioned to move the needle than the president, especially when it comes to foreign policy.

If it is primarily a strategy problem, then the appropriate response is a strategy review, one that questions fundamental assumptions and considers bold, even costly alternatives. Strategy reviews of this sort are especially difficult for administrations to conduct because they undermine existing strategies, especially when they leak to the public. And if these reviews do not arrive at a superior alternative strategy, they can leave the administration worse off, left to defend a strategy in which it has manifestly lost confidence.

If it is primarily an execution problem, the appropriate response is to change personnel and have the president spend more political capital imposing his/her will on the system.

A friend of mine from the communications side of the White House in George W. Bush’s era pointed out to me a pattern that held true in the Bush administration and may well hold more generally across administrations: Communications people tend to be quicker to believe that the problem is one of policy (strategy or execution), whereas policy people tend to be quicker to believe that the problem is one of communications. My friend would send me trenchant internal critiques of policy and lament the trenchant internal critiques of communications that he was receiving from senior policy people.

From the outside, it is hard to determine what would be the Obama Team’s self-diagnosis. It has doggedly stuck with existing strategies, and there is little evidence of a fundamental rethink of its global strategy. Likewise, if the administration thinks the problem is one of communications, it has not yet used its ace — President Obama — very effectively. The messaging out of the White House has been disciplined, in the sense of sticking to talking points, but not very convincing, in the sense of engaging thoughtful critics thoughtfully.

I suppose there is some evidence the administration thinks it has an execution problem. It has certainly had substantial changes in personnel, but the personnel changes have had the feel of the routine second-term revolving door and have not brought bold changes of perspective into positions of influence. So far, I have not seen much evidence that the president is committing the political capital necessary to drive a difficult strategy through to a successful conclusion.

That leaves open the disturbing possibility that the administration believes it faces neither a communications nor a strategy nor an execution problem — that the administration merely believes that things are tough and everyone else just cannot understand this basic fact. I know of no one outside the administration, whether an ardent ally of the president or a fervent critic, who would endorse this "no problem here" diagnosis. But for folks inside an insular, thin-skinned administration that tends to dismiss critics, it is possible the "no problem here" diagnosis holds sway.

If that is indeed where the administration is, there is only one way out before the tyranny of reality forces a new diagnosis, but one that arrives too late to salvage success on the foreign-policy front: get out of the bubble and expose the president to the best critics across a broad spectrum of political opinion, Democrat and Republican.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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