The Solve-Everything, Do-Nothing White House

How big goals and low bandwidth scuppered Obama's overburdened foreign policy agenda.


At the moment, U.S. foreign policy is in considerable disarray, and the vultures are circling the White House. Hawkish critics such as John McCain, Condoleezza Rice, and Niall Ferguson are lambasting Obama for his alleged "weakness" on Ukraine, Syria, Benghazi, or whatever — even though their main complaint seems to be that he isn’t willing to repeat the same costly blunders they either made or supported in the past. Still, the New York Times‘s David Sanger wonders if Obama’s more restrained approach to running the world has reached its limits, and he quotes one former Obama aide saying "we’re seeing the ‘light footprint’ run out of gas." And Tom Friedman thinks Obama can’t decide if he’s Pollyanna, John Wayne, or Henry Kissinger (as if these are the only options).

Contrary to the critical overreaction to Obama in the wake of events in Ukraine, what we are really seeing here is the classic problem of over-commitment — in this case one that is more diplomatic than military in nature. U.S. officials like to claim they know how to walk and chew gum at the same time — by which they mean they can handle more than one problem at once — but trying to do too many things simultaneously leaves no bandwidth for dealing with the unexpected. It also forces top officials to rely heavily on subordinates who may not be good at their assigned tasks. Pursuing multiple objectives without a clear set of priorities also allows opponents to thwart your aims merely by dragging their feet and waiting until Washington is distracted by the next problem. This tactic also forces U.S. leaders to spend more political capital, which in turn leaves them weaker when other issues arise. And when you try to do too many things at once, steps taken to advance your aims in one area may undermine your efforts somewhere else.

To see how Obama got here, let’s start with a quick look back to the start of his second term. As regular readers know, I didn’t think the administration would accomplish much on the foreign-policy front, given the dearth of low-hanging fruit and an unfinished domestic agenda. I thought foreign policy would be a holding action: they’d concentrate on getting Obamacare to work, nurture the economic recovery, try to ease out of Afghanistan, and then hand all those other pesky problems off to Hillary in 2016. 

But then John Kerry became secretary of state in January 2013 and decided to get ambitious. He picked up a favorable tailwind when Iran elected a reformist president, and for a time it looked like my original forecast was dead wrong. Suddenly we had a genuine diplomatic process with Iran, active work on a "framework" agreement for Israeli-Palestinian peace, a renewed push for big transatlantic and transpacific trade deals, and Kerry even stumbled his way to a face-saving agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. If a couple of those initiatives came to fruition, Obama and Kerry would end the second term in a blaze of foreign policy glory. Maybe Kerry could get a Nobel Peace Prize of his own, and Obama would finally earn his.

But look what happened instead. The Iran negotiations produced an interim agreement and the administration stared down the predictable opposition from AIPAC and other hardliners, but the process has been slow, the fight has already used up a lot of political capital, and the opponents of a deal haven’t gone away. In fact, they’ve made it clear that any final agreement has to go a very long way to eliminating Iran’s enrichment program. (Can you say, "that’s a deal-breaker?")

And the latest developments in Ukraine won’t help. There are a number of serious issues still left to resolve with Iran, our regional allies are deeply wary, and Moscow (which is part of the P5+1) isn’t going to do us any favors at this point. By reducing confidence in Obama’s judgment, the Ukraine fiasco will also make it harder for him to sell whatever deal the negotiators eventually reach. Capping Iran’s nuclear program still makes good strategic sense, but getting to the finish line ain’t going to be easy.

Similarly, Kerry’s energetic shuttle-diplomacy breathed new life into the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but then the United States quickly repeated the same familiar mistakes, no doubt leading to the same unhappy outcome. Instead of bringing in a fresh team with new ideas, Kerry recycled former AIPAC, WINEP, and Brookings Saban Center honcho Martin Indyk, a man with a proven track record of not reaching a Middle East peace deal. Instead of building on the 2000 Clinton parameters, the 2007 Abbas-Olmert talks, and the 2002/2007 Arab League peace offer, the still-undisclosed framework agreement is rumored to lean heavily in favor of Israel’s preferences, most notably on the status of East Jerusalem and the Jordan River Valley. In short, the United States is once again acting as "Israel’s lawyer," thereby insuring that this latest effort goes nowhere.

To be fair, Kerry has questioned Israel’s demand that it be recognized as a "Jewish state," (a new condition that was not part of the previous negotiations), but there is no sign Kerry or Obama are willing to put meaningful pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in order to get a workable deal. 

Furthermore, trying to get a deal with Iran and a two-state deal on Israel-Palestine at the same time was a bridge too far, because it requires taking on the Netanyahu government and the Israel lobby simultaneously — on two separate issues. Even if you believe AIPAC has less clout than it used to, this would be a daunting task for any American president, even in a second term. And it is not as though these issues are trivial ones for Israel either in light of the turmoil in the rest of the region; any Israeli leader would be certain to work hard to make sure its concerns were satisfied. So why did Obama or Kerry think they could pull off a miracle on both?

And all this took time. Meanwhile, the Syrian meat grinder has ground on, repeatedly threatening to drag in the United States. Although Obama wisely chose not to intervene last summer (a position that the American people clearly supported) it was still a major distraction and gave critics something to latch onto whenever they got tired of talking about Benghazi. Then there’s Afghanistan, which used to be Bush’s failure but which Obama has owned ever since he chose to escalate the war in 2009. Although Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s petulant refusal to sign a security agreement has given Obama an easy out, so far the president has refused to take it. Why? Because if the Afghan government collapses too quickly, Obama’s entire approach to the war will be discredited.

Finally, Obama was blindsided by events in Ukraine, but why the administration didn’t see this coming remains a mystery. No matter what Putin says, Yanukovych’s ouster was not the result of some deep Western plot, and in many ways Yanukovych deserved to go. But the United States as far from a neutral party in this process, as top U.S. officials — including Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt — either took actions or made statements that showed clear support for the demonstrators and a clear U.S. preference for interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Unfortunately, they intervened without considering how it might look to Russia, especially after 20 years of NATO expansion, the deployment of missile defenses near the Soviet border, and George W. Bush’s 2008 proposal to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. This was geostrategic incompetence of the highest order, but that is what happens when presidents and secretaries of state are too busy with a zillion other things and stop paying attention to what their ideologically driven subordinates are up to.  

So now the United States and Europe are in a giant kerfuffle with Moscow, which will burn up even more time and make it even harder to get Russian cooperation on Iran, in Syria, or against a rising China. It might all have been avoided had the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations not decided that it was America’s mission to try to guide as many countries as possible toward some sort of democracy (no matter how flawed) and some sort of pro-Western political alignment, even when other powers had reason to view this as a threat.

In the meantime, movement towards the two big-trade deals has stalled, Congress and the CIA are mud-wrestling over the torture report, and I haven’t said anything about territorial disputes in Asia, that missing Malaysian airliner, or the troubling political developments in Turkey. I don’t know if any of these items will take over everyone’s in-box in the days/weeks/months ahead, but it’s a near-certainty that something will.

Given all this, what odds would you give that the Obama administration can accomplish any of the foreign policy tasks that it has already taken on? With so many irons in the fire and with some of those fires heating up, it’s becoming much easier for opponents (foreign or domestic) to just dig in their heels and run out the clock — which is precisely what most of them will do.  

The lesson here is that there’s no substitute for having a clear strategy and a well-developed set of priorities, especially when you’re leading a country that defines its interests in global terms and is inclined to meddle in every world development Although Obama understood that the consequences of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the financial crisis required the United States to do somewhat less (a reality that his hawkish critics always forget because it was mostly their fault), his administration was still filled with idealist do-gooders who never saw a global problem they didn’t want to try to solve. But being busy is not the same as being successful, and frantic activity is easily confused with achievement. If you load up the agenda with more problems than you and your advisors can handle and you haven’t established which issues are critical and which belong on the back burner, then you’re not likely to solve any of them.

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

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