Shadow Government

The Wonkiest Yard

Advice from the bench as Obama starts his "Fourth Quarter."

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Since the 2014 midterm-election rebuke, President Barack Obama has been talking about the coming two years – his last two years in office – as the “fourth quarter” of the football game. Here at Shadow Government, we think this is an illuminating metaphor for thinking about the foreign policy challenges and opportunities confronting Team Obama. Below are some coaching tips from the bench.

Don’t go back to the original game plan. Confront the world as it is, rather than as you wish it were.

By Peter Feaver 

The striking thing about Obama’s 3rd quarter moves is how contrary to the original Obama game plan they were. The return of boots on the ground in Iraq, the launching of new combat operations in Syria, and the return to a confrontational approach with Russia – all of that reflected desperate audibles called in the face of the blitz of reality. Even though many of the problems of the 3rd quarter can be traced at least in part to mistakes made in the 1st and 2nd, the Obama administration still deserves some credit for being willing to change the game plan when reality demanded.

Then, in the last few minutes of the quarter, Obama returned to the 2008 game plan and did some moves originally promised in the pre-game — most notably the decision to drop all of the conditions (and all of our leverage) for normalization of relations with Cuba. These were moves dictated not at all by world events but rather by the underlying ideology that propelled Obama to run for office in the first place.

These moves had a highlight-reel logic to them. The echo of the Carter era was unmistakable: “Yes, the Carter foreign policy legacy was dismal but his place in the history books as the president who returned the Panama Canal is secure.” However, they do not change the fundamentals of the geopolitical situation much. And the fundamentals are that in almost every region, U.S. national security interests are under greater risk in January 2015 than they were in January 2009.

That is why my advice to the president involves distorting the football game metaphor beyond recognition: stop viewing this as a game that ends when you leave office. Start thinking about your departure not as the end, but rather the beginning of the next phase of the game. You will be handing off a ball to another quarterback who will then be responsible, but the game will not be over.

I think this could be liberating, because on the current trajectory there is little likelihood that Obama can “win” anything worth winning, at least not in any decisive way. It is far more likely that, in chasing a highlight reel moment the administration will accept a bad deal (cf. Iran negotiations). Better to establish as the goal, “setting up my successor to advance the ball further than I was able to do so.” That mindset might have the administration taking further painful steps now regarding Iraq, Syria, Russia, China, and so on, without the expectation of scoring many points, but with setting up the next team for success that eluded this team.

Stop throwing Hail Mary passes and go back to the fundamentals.

By Kori Schake

As the Cuba recognition shows, the Obama administration is looking toward a fourth quarter full of Hail Mary passes. But Hail Mary passes are for the final seconds, and they work best with practiced teammates — so the president ought to consolidate work with existing allies even if he intends a long odds throw as the clock winds down. He ought instead to patch up relations with the American friends most likely to speak ill of him when he’s gone and on whose support his international success most relies:

  • British Prime Minister David Cameron, who he stampeded into a catastrophic House of Commons vote on Syria;
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who’s been a sanctions stalwart despite huge costs to German business, and hasn’t gotten a word of thanks;
  • Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who President Obama humiliated on home turf with his climate change speech;
  • Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who Obama has ignored despite our common interest in a peaceful border, and whose country is changing in important and positive ways; and
  • Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who he’s aggravated beyond belief stalling the Keystone pipeline.

The president’s congeniality tour ought not stop at the water’s edge, either: he should throw a little love at the CIA — because he needs them to continue to be assiduous in their work; U.S. diplomats, who have seen little evidence of the proclaimed devotion to “smart power”; and the military, who, contrary to the belief of White House staff, actually do know a thing or two about warfare. He might even want to consider acknowledging that Republicans in Congress have the good of the country in mind, too. Americans like cheerful, optimistic politicians who want to get the job done. It’s been several years since those qualities were in evidence in America’s 44th President.

Down 35-13 in the fourth quarter; rally still possible. 

By Dov S. Zakheim

It is now the fourth quarter for the President, and, at least with respect to international security issues, he is clearly behind, 35-13. Score a touchdown for killing Bin Laden. Score a field goal for opening relations with Cuba, though the Cubans got the better of the deal. Score another field goal for the impact of the drop in petroleum prices on bad actors such as Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, though thus far their behavior hasn’t changed.

On the other hand, the administration has given up five touchdowns in the first three quarters of its term of office. The president fumbled his threat to take action if the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad crossed his “red line” and employed chemical weapons against its own people. Assad is still in power, and he is still killing his people, as he takes advantage of Western preoccupation with the Islamic State. Score a touchdown for the bad guys.

The president made good on his promise to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq, and did not work very hard to keep any troops there at all. As a result, he has been forced to send three thousand “advisors” and trainers to Iraq to support the fight against the Islamic State. More troops will no doubt follow, and soon they are likely to be involved in combat. Score another touchdown for the bad guys.

The president tried to achieve a “reset” with Russia. Instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded and seized Crimea, supported the creation of puppet governments in eastern Ukraine, and continues to destabilize that country. The drop in oil prices has not affected Putin’s foreign adventures, and he may yet engage in others, for example, in Moldova. Another touchdown for the bad guys. Score: 21-13.

The president has reached out to Iran on several occasions, and made it clear that a deal that puts the nuclear weapons issue to rest could result in a resumption of relations with the United States. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei thus far has rejected any permanent solution that would limit his country’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon. Like Putin, he seems undeterred by the drop in oil prices. With the Congress likely to approve additional sanctions, and Obama’s certain veto likely to be overridden by a bipartisan majority on the Hill, Khamenei is unlikely to have a change of heart. Score: 28-13.

As of December 31, the president will have achieved his objective of withdrawing all combat troops from Afghanistan. Several thousand trainers will remain behind, but the war is far from over, and, especially with Pakistan increasingly destabilized, the Taliban — operating from its safe havens in that country — is likely to step up the pace and intensity of its next fair weather offensive. Obama will then find that once again he has acted too quickly, and will have to increase America’s military presence in Afghanistan. Such an about face would further damage American credibility, already at an historic low worldwide. Five touchdowns for the other side. Score: 35-13.

The president can still rally to reverse America’s national security conundrum, but he will be hard pressed to do so in the two years left to him. To begin with, he needs to formulate a coherent long-term policy for the Middle East. Too much of the administration’s policies in the region have been ad hoc and reactive. The Islamic State is unlikely to be defeated unless America both articulates and, equally important, implements a coherent policy vis-à-vis Iraq and Syria. That means arming the Kurds and monitoring corruption in the Iraqi Army. It means not working with Iran against the Islamic State even on a tacit basis. It means pressuring Qatar, Turkey, and Kuwait to crack down on those who fund the Islamic State. It means supplying more arms and aid to King Abdullah of Jordan. And it means reaching an accommodation with the leaders of both Israel and Egypt, because those two countries are too important to regional stability to be ignored.

Second, he will have to learn to work with Congress, not slight it. That is the only way he will be able to win ongoing support for any further build up in Iraq and Afghanistan, and achieve any sort of agreement with Iran. The sooner he reaches out to the Republican majority, the more likely that he can head off any new sanctions legislation, at least for a while.

Third, the president needs a coherent policy regarding both Afghanistan, and its equally — if not more — difficult neighbor, Pakistan. Regarding Pakistan, no such policy has been forthcoming for years, as the administration alternates like a metronome between the carrots of aid and the sticks of censure, all the while continuing its drone operations, which have united most Pakistanis in their abhorrence of America. Washington has to be consistent, whichever policy it adopts, and not react to every event that takes place on the ground in that unfortunate country.

Finally, the president needs to recognize that defense spending is not like any other federal program: its impact is felt by allies, neutrals, and adversaries, and it underpins the credibility of any other action his administration might take. It is time the president agreed to exempt all of the defense budget from the sequester, both to stabilize current American military presence and capability worldwide, and signal to the likes of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin that American dominance, and the guarantees to allies and friends that it embodies, is likely to prevail far into the future.

Revive the ground game — the same one that scored against Bin Laden.

By Neil Joeck

President Obama has referred to the last two years of his administration as the fourth quarter of his presidency. Staying with his metaphor, one can think of his foreign policy in terms of an overall game plan as well as the offense and defense. The recent addition of a new secretary of defense looks like a decision to bring in a fresh running back, but without reevaluating the game plan, new personnel are unlikely to change the outcome. As the fourth quarter begins, therefore, a policy review would make good sense. On offense, the President needs to think in terms of a steady ground game, focusing more on regional realities rather than functional ideals. His threats to veto legislation and govern by Executive Orders look too much like a series of Hail Mary passes that may make the quarterback look heroic but rarely turn the game around. Meanwhile, he seems to have brought the old concept of “prevent defense” out of mothballs. That strategy, allowing the opposing team short yardage while denying the deep threat, frequently does little more than prevent the team from winning. A few more blitzes while double-teaming key receivers may concentrate U.S. power where it is needed to defend against regional belligerence.

So it is time to get the ground game going: be the guy who took down Osama bin Laden; think of regional realities; confront the threats to U.S. security from hostile enemies who ignore sermons about global responsibility. We’re giving up too much yardage; it’s time to huddle with friends and allies to ensure that a weak defense does not create opportunities for the opposition to score.

Play the game you’re in, not the one you want to play.

By Will Inboden

One optimistic reading of the Obama administration’s use of the “fourth quarter” metaphor is that six years in, this White House has finally realized that the sport international politics most resembles is football. A core cause of this administration’s many foreign policy failures and shortcomings has been an inability or unwillingness to recognize the state of the world and America’s role in it. Instead, this White House has consistently approached international politics as the wrong game. Sometimes the Obama team has treated foreign policy like an individual popularity contest (figure skating?), sometimes like a gentleman’s game (golf, an Obama favorite?), sometimes like a trivial distraction (lawn darts?), sometimes like a children’s board game, and at its worst like a beauty pageant, which isn’t even a game.

The serial disappointments and failures of the past six years – squandered soft power, neglected allies, the “reset” with Russia, the “redline” with Syria, squandered gains in Iraq, erosion in Afghanistan, a forgotten “pivot” to Asia, a resurgent terrorist threat, and so on – all stem from this misapprehension of the global playing field. Yes football has rules, as does international politics, but at its core it is a contest of power, strength, skill, strategy, and the controlled use of force. And it is a team sport.

Hence to start the fourth quarter, I echo Kori Schake in suggesting that the Obama administration would do well to first spend a timeout to repair damaged relations with America’s allies, our teammates. On the international scoreboard the United States has fallen way behind, but (to stretch the football metaphor almost to the breaking point) we have just had the good fortune of getting back several offensive and defensive starters from injured reserve thanks to our domestic energy boom and the concomitant plunge in global hydrocarbon prices. All of a sudden, the United States has a much stronger lineup, and opponents like Russia, Iran, and Venezuela have all lost their best players with oil down at $55 a barrel. Here’s hoping the White House can use this to get back to the fundamentals of blocking and tackling, and put some points on the board.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.
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