Uncle Sam Is Still Running the Wrong Way

Obama could transform his foreign-policy legacy if only he would walk his talk.

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Congress’s moves to thwart the executive branch’s negotiation of a deal on Iran’s nuclear ambitions reminds me of the famous NFL blooper where a player recovers a fumble and runs into the wrong end zone, scoring a safety for the other team rather than a touchdown for his own. The pushing of politics beyond the time-honored water’s edge has debilitated American diplomatic power per se, crimping bargaining power and making it harder to serve up non-military solutions and improve American strategic leverage and “optionality” in the Middle East and elsewhere. The House and the Senate may think they scored two touchdowns for Team America the past couple of weeks, but they’ve likely scored two safeties for Team Iran.

And they’re not the only ones playing at a less-than-stellar level.

As the Obama administration rolled out a “smarter kind of American leadership” with January’s State of the Union, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that the Iraq Strategic Response Plan, leading the relief to communities caught up in conflict there, was only 36 percent funded. Other efforts to dampen the destabilizing effects of wholesale population displacement in the Middle East are hardly faring better. Humanitarian programs for which the United States is normally the largest donor are on life support. The day after the United Nations filed its report, it was forced to allocate some $100 million from its Central Emergency Response Fund to maintain relief work in Syria and 11 other countries where humanitarian needs are maximal but financial support is minimal. At the same time, efforts to rebuild Gaza shut down due to a $580 million shortfall — about the same amount Congress approved last summer for supporting Israeli missile defense.

The hardships of humanitarian efforts critical to stabilizing the Middle East contrast starkly with what Obama’s second and last National Security Strategy, released in February, says the United States must do to chart a new international course that is less dependent on military power, leads with “the example of our values,” and invokes “a long-term perspective.” But talk, as we know, is cheap. These high-minded ideas have yet to find a home in programs, budgets, and operations. “Humanitarian funding agencies have been constantly on the verge of running out of funding,” Pia Wanek, Global Communities director of humanitarian assistance, told me. “Protracted conflicts need long-term commitments.”

That requires leadership. So far, the United States has been talking a real good game. But it’s hardly been playing one.

Certainly, there have been glimmers of improvement. The president’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2016 features a $54.8 billion request for international affairs that Liz Schrayer, U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC) president and CEO, called “a step in the right direction.” But it nonetheless represents a reversal of just over two percentage points of the 16 percent cuts in diplomacy and development seen in the previous five years.

That’s in good part because America’s lingering obsession with terrorism trumps a more sober view of U.S. foreign and national security policy. As Micah Zenko pointed out in Foreign Policy in January, the pursuit of extremist networks is based on “a selective, and flawed, understanding of what factors enabled the terrorist attacks to occur on 9/11.” With the Islamic State topping the national debt and Social Security among its concerns, the American public appears again ready to send someone else’s kids into the same places where the United States allegedly learned that the solution to these problems is not primarily military. (The just-published Global Terrorism Index notes that 83 percent of terrorist movements end through eventual politicization or policing, while only 7 percent end from the use of military force.)

The buzz on the Hill, however, is more about boots on the ground and arming allies than financing diplomacy or development. Congress also keeps pushing back on the Pentagon’s plans to close bases costing billions to maintain. Meanwhile, a “homeland security complex” continues its imperceptible growth. Paired with its older, military-industrial sibling, this complex has cre­ated or reconfigured at least 263 organizations in response to the sub-existential threat of terrorism. Since 9/11, 33 new sites have been built for intelligence bureaucracies alone, occupying 17 million square feet — the equivalent of three Penta­gons.

The Defense Department, in turn, has lost its appetite for supporting “whole of government solutions and civilian expeditionary capabilities, which peaked in the second Bush administration,” as the National Defense University’s Joseph J. Collins observed in the Small Wars Journal. While “diplomacy in action” in the form of the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) and non-militarized development has received lukewarm institutional backing in the State Department and on Capitol Hill, “[M]any in the Pentagon are happy to return to their preoccupation with high-tech conventional warfare.”

In the past, the U.S. government built up for wars, assumed emergency authorities, and sometimes abused them. Yet it always demobilized afterward. While the United States ended its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, it remains for all practical purposes on a perpetual war footing. Nothing’s been changed in the Patriot Act, supposedly a temporary measure, and further evidence of the central government’s vast powers of surveillance and data collection keeps leaking out, with whimpers of discontent — again, as polls suggest — drowned out by a narrative of “national security über alles.”

Obama himself struggles to take on the groupthink. As former staffer Lawrence J. Korb concluded in last December’s National Interest, “44 has been more transactional than transformational, continuing to characterize American foreign intervention more with smart bombs than with smart power. As early as 2010, the Center for a New American Security assessed a considerable “say-do gap” in the administration’s global-engagement strategy. This has contributed to the soft power outage Kristin Lord elucidated for Foreign Policy in December, underscoring a continual erosion of the moral authority of the “indispensable nation.”

The more it seems America talks in one direction, the more it seems to go in another, more familiar one. The Project on National Security Reform (PNSR), the main purpose of which was the (still) obvious need to update a foreign policy and national security operating software rooted in the Cold War, closed down due to a failure to find six-figure financing in Washington — another indictment of national leadership that simply doesn’t “get it.” At PNSR’s last meeting three Januaries ago, I described the directional dissonance to my colleagues there by explaining how the United States is “running the wrong way” — as in the football folly film.

Uncle Sam is still running the wrong way. He has been for a while. The disinvestment in national strategic capabilities that ultimately generate greater national and international security began well before this president’s time, or even his predecessor’s.

According to a 2013 USGLC “Report on Reports,” between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, the State Department “had lost nearly 20 percent of its overseas staff,” while the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) dwindled by about one-third. These institutions recovered somewhat to meet post-conflict reconstruction demands in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they were still woefully underfunded and their programs badly executed — lending to today’s common wisdom that “nation-building” doesn’t work. While squads of commercial officers have drummed up markets for Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and European businesses in a world in which 95 percent of customers are outside the United States, American embassies struggle to sport one lone ranger.

Year-in and year-out since, the USGLC and its allies have fought an up-Hill battle, happy to hold the line in diplomacy and development investments rather than a more appropriate re-balancing. The Defense Department, predictably, has waged a more successful campaign to minimize cuts to planned spending increases; it helps that Congress is critical of recent multimillion-dollar development program gaffes, yet barely raises an eyebrow at a long dysfunctional military procurement system whose multiyear costs for single programs, such as the F-35 fighter, approach trillions.

No doubt the Obama administration scored considerable foreign-policy points as its third quarter came to an end. There was its Ebola response, an agreement with China on pollution restraints, and of course the opening to Cuba. It stands to score some more in its last quarter, on climate change, U.N. peacekeeping reform, and other fronts. But if the president wants to be remembered as a game changer more than a game manager, he should spend some of his precious political capital on structuring the country for future foreign-policy success by simply walking his talk.

If, as he said at the State of the Union, the United States is to look “to the future instead of the past” and “match its power with diplomacy and use force wisely,” he must reshape U.S. strategy by restoring the relationship between intimidation and inspiration more resonant with American values. He can start by re-balancing America’s foreign policy and national security teams. Among the recommendations in the USGLC report is fortifying the corps of civilians responsible for implementing America’s soft power by reaching the goals of the State Department’s Diplomacy 3.0 and USAID’s Development Leadership Initiatives: adding around 1,500 more staff at the two agencies, or about one-thousandth of the ranks of the armed forces.

He could also make sure his country leads by example by shoring up its share of humanitarian funding, then getting the rest of the donor community to follow suit. His plan for the Islamic State, in turn, could specify how and with what means diplomacy and economic and political development will get at the root causes of the chaos the group exploits rather than just playing whack-a-terrorist.

More broadly speaking, Obama needs to lay out his overall foreign and security policy game plan — the coordination of ways and means and not just a laundry list of ends. His National Security Strategy fails to explain not only how the U.S. government should bring its own civil-military capabilities to bear, but more importantly how those capabilities should leverage and enable the full array of national, international, regional, and local capacities for building peace and prosperity, as well as securing U.S. national interests. He needs to detail those matters to Congress and to the public. One way is to have more televised “town hall meetings,” such as the one he had at Florida International University on immigration last month, explaining his national security strategy and its major elements, including nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Putting peace and security the right way around so that the United States can heed George F. Kennan’s refrain to “first use moral authority” will be far from easy; it will take time well beyond this president’s term of office. Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, however, need to start turning things around in a serious way. The country can no longer afford to rely on being luckier than it is good. If it stays on the same path, Uncle Sam will only keep scoring safeties for the other team.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

Christopher Holshek, a retired U.S. Army civil affairs colonel, is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Peacebuilding and author of Travels with Harley: Journeys in Search of Personal and National Identity.