An Administration With Its Head Cut Off

The White House is running around from crisis to crisis without a game plan, much less a strategy. But leading from behind can actually work if you do it right.

Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images
Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images

It’s just not fun anymore to critique the Obama administration’s foreign policy — it’s like picking on the Chicago Cubs. Except the Cubs aren’t consistently bad and their mistakes haven’t accrued lasting damage to our country. 

Remember when the president frequented the trope of the Bush administration driving the country into a ditch? Sorry, but the Obama administration has driven American foreign policy Thelma-and-Louise-style off a cliff. It will take dramatic changes from a new administration to restore credibility in American judgment and competence.

There are three fundamental mistakes in the Obama White House’s (for it is there that all national security policies are made in this administration) understanding of the world. The first is that if the United States steps back, other states will step forward and undertake the work we would like to have done. The second is that big ideas are a hindrance to managing international crises — and they don’t even bother to ask the higher-order question: "Why is this happening?" The third, (which ought to be impossible given the second misconception) is the sublime confidence to believe they know better than the countries immediately affected by crises.

The reality is that when the United States steps back, the states we want to have engaged in solving problems tend to step back even further, and the states that do not share our interests are more likely to see — and take — opportunities to act. Because the Obama administration does not have a theory of why events are occurring, they treat each event as unconnected to — or, rather, without effect on — the judgments and actions of others. And because they know best, they don’t allow themselves to be persuaded by appeals from countries more directly concerned with the course of events than the United States might be.

So we lecture the Egyptians on authoritarianism, the Bahrainis on respect for minorities, and the Israelis on the need for peace with Palestinians. But as former CENTCOM commander Gen. James Mattis points out, we have no opinion on the underlying threat posed by political Islam — the Obama White House doesn’t even recognize it as the issue animating governments throughout the Middle East — or a strategy to deal with it. The result is that we are unwilling to solve problems, and allies feel we undercut their efforts. We miss rare and important opportunities to advance interests and align allies to better manage our common challenges.

In addition to the Obama administration’s misconceptions, there is, of course, the aggravating factor of insisting that any foreign policy choice other than their own is, as Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes would spin it, an overreaction. The Iraq War is still the dominant narrative in U.S. foreign policy, and the White House understands such language invokes isolationist reflexes that can shield the president from criticism over doing too little. But there is a difference between making sound policy and political communications. The White House’s aggressive efforts on this front actually cement the public belief that our range of choices is binary: direct U.S. military involvement or nothing. In truth, what Obama foreign policy desperately needs is more supple involvement and less telescoping down to military options. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they need "smart power."

That does not mean Secretary of State John Kerry ricocheting off to whatever crisis blares from the day’s newspaper headlines. It means identifying the problem and arraying the means available to us to achieve our objectives. As King’s College Prof. Lawrence Freedman argues so persuasively in his recent book, strategy creates power by using the means available to us more effectively than others can. Very often those means will not be those of the U.S. government; they will be setting allies up to be successful, and encouraging civic groups outside government control or international institutions. But these means can only be effectively harnessed to the government’s purpose when the government influences how others think about the problem. The only way to lead from behind is through the power of developing a common understanding and the practical matter of quietly assisting allied efforts. Developing a common vision often requires allowing ourselves to be persuaded by others’ views and it often requires supporting efforts by others even when we are not persuaded of their argument. But this is no less than we very often expect of them in support of our policies.

Take the war in Gaza. The administration has made a set of choices that aid Hamas. Surely that cannot have been President Obama’s objective. Yet the White House’s choices have served to delegitimize the Palestinian Authority with its own people; revive Hamas’s fortunes as the resistance to Israel; alarm regional allies who are threatened by Iranian-sponsored violence; undercut efforts by Egypt to reassert itself as a regional mediator; marginalize regional allies motivated to act against jihadists in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine; further isolate Israel internationally; and shift moral responsibility for civilian casualties from Hamas (which uses civilians as human shields to launch missiles) to Israel (for engaging in defensive and necessary warfare).

Imagine instead that during the tense run up to this latest Gaza war, the Obama administration had a better hold on the greater forces at work in the Middle East: the crisis of governance and how that is being manipulated by political Islam. Imagine it had thought its way through the difficult dilemmas posed by democratization where militant Islamists have been the main vehicle for political dissent. Imagine it had sought out the views of countries that have supported our interests: Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, on how they view the challenge and what we could do to help them. Imagine if we facilitated cooperation among them by filling gaps in their capabilities. Imagine if we weren’t shaken from defending their efforts by utterly predictable setbacks that can happen in imperfect democracies. Imagine we provided help without visibly swooping into take all the credit for what is achieved, instead praising them for making the world safer for Americans and for their own people. That is what leading from behind would look like, effectively practiced; it’s called coalition warfare. It would protect and strengthen our allies, punish jihadists, constrain Iranian malignity, build cooperation among disparate American security partners, and incentivize Islamists toward political practices democratizing states can manage.

The president and his White House staff contend they are making smart long-term choices. But six years into this administration, what we are seeing now is the consequence of the president’s long-term choices: an international order in which our friends are cowed and our adversaries emboldened. If President Obama wants a legacy larger than ending two wars to America’s profound disadvantage, he needs to reconsider some fundamental beliefs about how international relations work. It is a tall order, but unless he does, his administration will continue lurching from crisis to crisis without success.

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