Shadow Government

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

6 Bad Assumptions President Obama Should Leave Behind in Hawaii

As the Obama administration anticipates the president’s return to the White House next week from his Hawaii vacation, many senior staff and cabinet officials are likely preparing to meet with President Obama to discuss their strategic plans for the upcoming year. For the national security team, this can be an opportune time to not only ...

By , the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

As the Obama administration anticipates the president's return to the White House next week from his Hawaii vacation, many senior staff and cabinet officials are likely preparing to meet with President Obama to discuss their strategic plans for the upcoming year. For the national security team, this can be an opportune time to not only map out their future plans but also to revisit some of the assumptions that have shaped their foreign policy during the administration's first five years.

Policy assumptions are often unstated; they are the stuff of an administration's worldview and the conceptual pillars that undergird the policies themselves. For these reasons and others, questioning policy assumptions can be a hard exercise. Doing so demands a willingness to admit possible error, can threaten multiple bureaucratic interests and scarce resources invested in current policy lines, and requires time and perspective that is hard to come by amidst the frenetic pace of the daily in-box and crisis management. This can be an especially fraught process for mid-level staff who risk being labeled "disloyal" or "unsupportive" of the president's agenda, and fear that raising a voice of dissent could mean losing their access, their influence, or even their job.

As the Obama administration anticipates the president’s return to the White House next week from his Hawaii vacation, many senior staff and cabinet officials are likely preparing to meet with President Obama to discuss their strategic plans for the upcoming year. For the national security team, this can be an opportune time to not only map out their future plans but also to revisit some of the assumptions that have shaped their foreign policy during the administration’s first five years.

Policy assumptions are often unstated; they are the stuff of an administration’s worldview and the conceptual pillars that undergird the policies themselves. For these reasons and others, questioning policy assumptions can be a hard exercise. Doing so demands a willingness to admit possible error, can threaten multiple bureaucratic interests and scarce resources invested in current policy lines, and requires time and perspective that is hard to come by amidst the frenetic pace of the daily in-box and crisis management. This can be an especially fraught process for mid-level staff who risk being labeled "disloyal" or "unsupportive" of the president’s agenda, and fear that raising a voice of dissent could mean losing their access, their influence, or even their job.

All this is made even more difficult by the notorious "White House bubble" that afflicts Democratic and Republican presidencies alike and can induce a delusion that current policies are succeeding when in fact they are not. A helpful prerequisite is for administration principals – beginning with President Obama, and including National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel – to set the right tone by telling their policy staffs, especially their strategic planners, that policy assumptions can and should be reviewed.

As a first step, here are my suggestions of some current Obama administration policy assumptions that should be questioned (and probably jettisoned):

  • American leadership inspires global resentments. This meta-assumption seems to undergird many other Obama administration policy assumptions, and explains much of the administration’s worldview. It is seductive because it is partially true — but its converse is even more true, that American passivity inspires even greater frustrations around the world. And hurts American interests.
  • Rhetoric is reassuring to our Asian allies. Over two years after the administration’s much-hyped "pivot" to Asia, most Asian leaders, especially among American allies, have come to the reluctant conclusion that it was just talk. The administration’s continued protestations of U.S. commitment to Asia ring hollow in light of failure to devote adequate military resources, diplomatic engagement, and political commitment to the free trade agenda.
  • Al Qaeda is on the ropes. The administration’s laudable successes in decimating much of the original core al Qaeda leadership seems to have blinded it to the mutation and resurgence of many affiliated terrorist franchises, including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabab, al-Nusra Front, and others. As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross points out, al Qaeda had a very good year in 2013. Ignoring that does not bode well for American interests in 2014.
  • Iran is negotiating from a position of weakness, not strength. While I hope the not-yet-implemented provisional agreement with Iran will succeed in ending Iran’s nuclear program, I fear it will not. And this is because the administration’s assumptions seem to have been that an Iran weakened by sanctions and diplomatically isolated is desperate for a deal. Whereas Iran seems to have calculated that it was the Obama administration that is weak and desperate for a deal, having let the Assad regime off the hook over its chemical weapons use, resisted Congressional sanctions measures, alienated its ally Israel, and quietly decided it is unwilling to use force against Iran.
  • We don’t need the Saudis, and the rest of the Middle East doesn’t matter. As many including my Shadow colleague John Hannah have commented, America’s alienation from Saudi Arabia and blithe dismissal of Riyadh’s concerns has been stunning. Yes, the Saudis can be vexing to deal with and their interests do not always align with ours. But they have been a pillar of our regional policy for decades, and disregarding the Kingdom is foolish. Meanwhile the ongoing crises in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq are worsening and risk destabilizing the entire region, yet receive little attention from an administration that seems intent on ignoring anything in the Middle East not labeled "Israel-Palestinian Peace Process."
  • The Bush administration is the main source of our problems. It beggars belief that five years after Bush left office this assumption still has purchase on the White House’s thinking, but as my Shadow colleague Dan Twining pointed out just over a month ago, some influential Obama staff are still addicted to an irresponsible "blame Bush" posture. For 2014, that should be the first and easiest assumption to toss in the burn bag. The Obama administration needs to take responsibility for its own actions — and inactions.

As hard as it is to question assumptions, it can be done. The White House eventually disabused itself of some of its earlier mistaken assumptions, such as that Vladimir Putin could be enticed into being a reliable American partner, or that Obama’s appealing image alone would inspire widespread global cooperation. If the Obama administration hopes to salvage its final three years of foreign policy, then a safe assumption is it should begin by asking itself some hard questions.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.

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