On disappointment: Reacting to the Overrated

Reading Stephen Walt’s argument for why George Mitchell should resign as the President’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, one is forced to wonder about the broad causes for the administration’s ineffectiveness and failures in the area of foreign policy. Walt’s suggests that Mitchell would do his personal reputation some good by stepping down; “he is wasting his time” in the Middle East. The Obama administration, he argues, has lost its nerve on too many occasions for its “policy” on Palestine to have much credibility or influence. If Mitchell were to follow Walt’s advise it would do serious damage to the president’s international prestige; it is an intellectually stimulating point, but its value stays there. The problem is not George Mitchell, as Walt writes, the problem is the President’s foreign policy. This provides a decent basis to marinate on some broad problems inherent to and influencing Barack Obama’s foreign policy in general. Walt’s dissatisfaction is thus:

In an interview earlier this week with Time’s Joe Klein, President Obama acknowledged that his early commitment to achieving “two states for two peoples” had failed. In his words, “this is as intractable a problem as you get … Both sides-the Israelis and the Palestinians-have found that the political environments, the nature of their coalitions or the divisions within their societies, were such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation. And I think we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that” (my emphasis).

This admission raises an obvious question: who was responsible for this gross miscalculation? It’s not as if the dysfunctional condition of Israeli and Palestinian internal politics was a dark mystery when Obama took office, or when Netanyahu formed the most hard-line government in Israeli history. Which advisors told Obama and Mitchell to proceed as they did, raising expectations sky-high in the Cairo speech, publicly insisting on a settlement freeze, and then engaging in a humiliating retreat? Did they ever ask themselves what they would do if Netanyahu dug in his heels, as anyone with a triple-digit IQ should have expected? And if Obama now realizes how badly they screwed up, why do the people who recommended this approach still have their jobs?

As for Mitchell himself, he should resign because it should be clear to him that he was hired under false pretenses. He undoubtedly believed Obama when the president said he was genuinely committed to achieving Israel-Palestinian peace in his first term. Obama probably promised to back him up, and his actions up to the Cairo speech made it look like he meant it. But his performance ever since has exposed him as another U.S. president who is unwilling to do what everyone knows it will take to achieve a just peace. Mitchell has been reduced to the same hapless role that Condoleezza Rice played in the latter stages of the Bush administration — engaged in endless “talks” and inconclusive haggling over trivialities-and he ought to be furious at having been hung out to dry in this fashion.


Yet U.S. diplomacy in this area remains all talk and no action. When a great power identifies a key interest and is strongly committed to achieving it, it uses all the tools at its disposal to try to bring that outcome about. Needless to say, the use of U.S. leverage has been conspicuously absent over the past year, which means that Mitchell has been operating with both hands tied firmly behind his back. Thus far, the only instrument of influence that Obama has used has been presidential rhetoric, and even that weapon has been used rather sparingly.

And please don’t blame this on Congress. Yes, Congress will pander to the lobby, oppose a tougher U.S. stance, and continue to supply Israel with generous economic and military handouts, but a determined president still has many ways of bringing pressure to bear on recalcitrant clients. The problem is that Obama refused to use any of them.

What's going on?

In foreign affairs, the Obama story is largely one of overestimation and miscalculation. This is not simply true of the President and his advisors; it was true of many who elected him and those who hocked him to the American public. Foreign policy is not the only place that is true, for a look at his domestic agenda bears many similar disappointments for those who were convinced of his competence in several fields. But in his foreign policy especially, President Obama is disengaged and without clear direction. He is not a “foreign policy president”; Daniel Drezner has said this and intelligent people should agree with him (though they might not). Rightly or wrongly, President Obama is preoccupied with domestic concerns and political calculations. And in that has allowed himself to be a slave of domestic opinion in areas where the national interest ought take precedence. His tenure has, of yet, been more politically petty than anything else. He has used foreign policy as a way of raising hopes in order to buy time towards ambiguous ends.

The areas of policy where his administration is most deserving of commendation are those where the President has shut up and allowed the process to go on in the hands of those who know what they are doing, why they are doing it and how they ought to do it. Drezner has it that Americans are concerned with their own well being and would resent a President who showed too much interest in the world afar in an economic down turn. That is likely true; but that does not provide any excuse for the lack of direction and the treatment of foreign policy as social work. The President’s intentions may be quite nice in setting up a series of envoys whose missions and powers overlap with other, previously standing, bureaucratic offices and agents; his selection of a Secretary of State for political purposes rather than her individual qualifications or her ability communicate his objectives to others is understood and might be even considered cunning. Yet in both cases, it has diffused and weakened the conduct of our policy in various parts of the globe; it has weakened the President himself, in terms of credibility, prestige and currency, by allowing alternate interests exploit the crevasses in his “foreign policy team.”

For all the whimsical talk of the President as a Niebhurian realist, philosophical and understanding of the nation’s needs, one sees none of that reflect in the organization of his policy. He has opted for symbolism for action, rhetoric for purpose, wavering for prudence, and politics for policy. It is said that Secretary Clinton meets with President once a week; in that she has far too much freedom and the policy not enough unity. The argument that Clinton’s personal aura and prestige assists her in her work likely has some truth, but only to a point. Too much in the Obama administration’s foreign affairs has been centered on the power of personalities as institutions. What the American role is in the world today and going forward remains hazy and uncertain. It is as if the President has the country waiting on his next memoir in which he resolves the conflicts of America’s global position in the twenty-first century.

The President has committed the mistakes of the 1990’s, which is to treat foreign policy as an extension of domestic politics and not an issue of national survival. Too many make excuses for his laziness in world affairs and overemphasize his supposed awareness of American limitations. Perhaps when Fareed Zakaria, for example, wrote of President Obama’s “realism” he should identified that understanding of American limitations with the President’s recognition of his own limits. A man with quick foreign policy experience and with high domestic ambitions should have seen that what he needed in foreign affairs was a team of highly competent, perhaps even technocratic, men and women, not recycled Clinton-era political appointees or envoys appointed to demonstrate an understanding urgency rather than ones empowered to really address their tasks. The problem is not with the envoys as men, but with the prioritization the represent — that the President would rather others deal with those problems and when he fails to support them it is perfectly valid to blame the other parties involved, rather than those who made pointless and false promises. George Mitchell and Richard Holebrooke are not the ones to be blamed (at least not alone) for the problems the administration has in carrying on its policy. Instead, the real blame belongs to those who set up a flimsy scheme political scheme to conduct policy by photo-ops and speeches rather than active executive (though not presidential) engagement in serious challenges to American priorities. It is the result of a thought process shackled in conventional thinking — if the Bush administration was hampered by its own ideological proclivities the Obama administration has been set off on the wrong foot by an obsession with tactical concerns over strategic ones.

What all the administration’s politicking is meant to come out to, in Iran or in North Korea or with Russia or in sub-Saharan Africa, remains uncertain. The preservation of negotiation processes over particular issues seems to have become a goal in itself rather than a means to some quantifiable or qualifiable end. One is, in effect, asked to ascertain the President’s objective in, say, Iran on the basis of speeches and rhetoric, hot and cold but never clear. Stop enriching uranium? Don’t crunch teenagers’ bones? Make us sure you don’t want a nuke? Be nice if you do get a nuke? What? None of the administration’s activity suggests any change in the American relationship with Iran or an understanding of how the non-relationship should work. It operates on an assumption that either a happy relationship with Iran is preferable to the status quo or that the status quo ought to be prolonged for fear of some bigger confrontation. What would be better is to decide that efforts to win the Iranian people away from their regime is a waste of time; it is better to work to cripple the country by non-military means not related to sanctions or finger wagging. It is a country morally and economically vulnerable, and there are channels to exploit that weakness that would appear unexplored or dismissed for sanctimonious purposes. That sentiment may bother some, but worse things have been written and done. In any case, the problem is a debilitating lack of creativity. Though the administration came out with a prudent offense, it has quickly taken to responding to Iranian outrages regardless of whether that is politic or not, beneficial to American priorities (whatever those might be) or not. This is an administration fearful of purpose, but not of promises. The hope the President has so frequently brandished to mobilize Americans is increasingly pathetic. There is not only an indication that President Obama will not be a foreign policy president any time soon; there is another that he will not be a statesman anytime soon, either. Not many presidents are statesmen as well.

Barack Obama was elected to govern a country in moral and economic crisis. He was able to win an election by projecting himself as a pragmatist who could do just that. His speeches were rueful and his pronouncements without doctrine. He evidenced the shrewd calculation of  a politician then, and convinced many that he could transcend traditional boundaries and divisions. Now he is the President of the first among the world’s Great Powers as the international system stands. That post requires a capacity to transcend pettiness and reactionary tendencies; it requires a sense of purpose and vision. It requires more than hope, but determination and conviction. It needs a man willing to take risks and to go around petty domestic actors whose narrowness stands in the way of greater priorities. It demands a leader who can be elected as well as govern. It requires a statesman.

Our Republicans and our Democrats

The President comes from a party that has assured itself for the last eight years that it could govern, or at least govern better than the other one. Consequently, its biggest questions were not Can we govern and how would we do it? Rather the more pressing problem was Can we get elected and how do we do it? It is true that the best leaders are often those who might be easily elected. That was even more so true of the Republicans more concerned with obtaining, holding and wielding power than with the consequences or implications of power. The failure of the American political class in this way is perhaps the greatest bi-partisan effort in recent history. Both sides of the aisle have succeeded in undermining any sense of common national purpose or identity to the point where it either contracts ignorantly or expands to the point of irrelevance. George Washington had the right idea on these things.

It should be no surprise, then, that for some time neither party has been able to produce leaders who have been able to lead Americans beyond Fantasia and expressions of provincialism, economic or political. These parties, which began with principles and goals and were led by men with a sense of their country’s place in the world, nowadays see elected and appointed offices as goals in and of themselves, national policy simply as a way of keeping those offices or seizing them. For these men and women, it might seem, there is scarce meaning to history, and public office carries an obligation in space-time only in terms of campaign contributions and term limits. The word “office” comes from the Latin officium — meaning, among other things, the sense of duty and service. There is also the Stoic kathekon, concerned with things done toward a common purpose. In the Latin sense, all that remains of many leaders’ sense of their duty is their office as an objective. If theories of American decline in the grand and dismal sense have any credence, this is perhaps the greatest contributor to a fact of American decline. If the President were state his “vision” publicly, it would do it (and him) some harm, but if he acted on it, many things might be better off. That is not to talk about a foreign policy based on some etherial moral doctrine; it is to talk about a policy with a definition and prioritization of its purposes. His policy cannot be perfect but it should be clear. Politicians who make promises to no common end beyond election day win the most ire; those who raise high expectations they cannot appease do themselves a disservice, knocking the legs off of their own stools. In foreign policy, the was Barack Obama’s earliest mistake. False and broken promises can weigh on the heart as heavily as lies.

These are lamentations heard, generationally in reaction to great malaises. There is overstatement in the condemnation of the people who run for office and who staff bureaus and who go grey trying to keep the United States in a desirable position. Many people are discouraged by the conduct of politicians and political parties; many appreciate the rot that the nature of political debate in the United States often represents and work against it. Many of them are employed in federal agencies and elsewhere in government. There are no illusions about the intensions of political actors or writers or subjects; self-preservation and promotion are central to of those sets and on those grounds they can only be faulted so much. Men are irrational and frequently unreasonable. Readers should be aware that this sort of writing expresses no melodramatic disappointment with Barack Obama or grand targets, because there was no special enthusiasm for him to start with and the way of the world is such as it stands. Satisfaction is always elusive. So there is no vendetta, but there can be no republicanism or amelioration without skepticism. There is only room for improvement in will, action and deliberateness. There is Hope, provisionally.

Where the President has done well is as important as where he has been deficient. In the largest areas of policy he has kept up with the previous administration’s handling of such important rising powers and relationships as in China and India. In China especially he resisted the protectionist and usually stupid impulse of some in his party to use that country as a sounding board for domestic purposes. In India has a continued to cultivate an ever more important relationship. He has kept the correct stance with Europe, though he must do more to reassure them of his commitment to the trans-Atlantic relationship. These are perhaps the most pressing issues for the United States in the long-term; these will as close to equals the United States has on many fronts and socializing them in to the international system in a healthy way is critical. He has further done with the Russians what is necessary in terms of proliferation issues between the two countries. Some will complain about Russia (and China’s) assistance to Iran and the President’s failure to accomplish anything in that field. That is misguided. What is most critical is to ensure that Iran cannot improve itself in material or military terms to the point where it matters beyond its immediate frontiers. Iran is ambitious but nevertheless weak and held to the expectations of more powerful countries. In Latin America he has been smart enough to withhold from demagogues the attention that gives them ammunition against the United States, and worked, as best as he could, to deal with the Cuban problem (which is more a problem of congressional overreach than than national security). He deserves much praise in areas many Americans forget about; but where he has made promises or high statements, he has not delivered due to his lack of interest and imagination, his character and his decisions.


6 thoughts on “On disappointment: Reacting to the Overrated

    • I’m not sure what you mean here. He deserves praise in some areas where Bush did, but for different reasons; and some in areas where Bush did not. American policy does not see drastic changes between individual administrations in the broad sense. There is always continuity to a very strong degree. The major difference is, in my view, where Bush had a strong but often wrong headed foreign policy, Obama has an often well meaning but poorly formulated and disengaged policy. There are responsibilities that the problems left over from the previous administration have given him but that he has been too slow to act on or has dealt with incorrectly (in my opinion). I am not really of the school of thought that says there is little or no difference between Bush and Obama; we still know and see to little about and from Obama and where he wants to lead the country. The US needs strong and prudent leadership now and Obama is not giving it in too many areas.

  1. Kal, I think you’re missing the point here. It was clear from the beginning of this administration that there were massive problems to solve at home: fixing the financial sector, dealing with unemployment, climate change legislation, promoting a shift to clean energy, and health care. Not to mention the structural shift in the economy that has led many jobs in manufacturing to disappear for good. Given the degree of challenges at home, no one expected him to be a foreign policy president. And progress on the Israel-Palestine front is not exactly the best yardstick to use in judging his foreign policy. As he made clear from the campaign on, the focus would be on Afghanistan and a gradual drawdown in Iraq. Everything else would be a second- or third-level priority at best. And frankly, the Middle East in general will be far less important to the US over the next ten years than Asia. To their credit, the Obama administration has grasped this, and realizes that the US-China relationship is the most important in the world. So in short, complain about Obama at will – his domestic policies surely deserve heaps of criticism, but you’re not misjudging the standards we should use to judge Obama, even on foreign policy.

    • Thanks for the comment Jefferson. You make a good point, and I agree with you. Many of these points are in fact made in the post itself. The problem I am getting at is not clearly or directly stated (on purpose), but is more about Obama’s individual leadership traits and our political culture today. And I think both of these are reason for disappointment.

      I’m not arguing for him to be a foreign policy president; and I did note that the Asian relationships are the highest priority. I am not judging his policy with Israel Palestine as a yardstick (except that the administration has put too much emphasis there ahead of more important things in the region). I merely used Walt’s posting a launching pad for other matters, though I think the way the administration has approached the Palestine problem is illustrative of broader problems in his policy at large. And it is not arguing for an emphasis on the Middle East over other areas; I have written before about the way regional specialists hype up their region as critical to the national agenda when the opposite is true. Here the concern is really his ability at large than his attention to one or the other region.

      This post is not arguing for him to be a foreign policy president and it is not faulting him for putting his emphasis on domestic issues. It is faulting him for the way he has gone about his foreign policy, which I think would pose problems even if the economy were not in the shape it is. They are problems in the president and our political culture.

      I am not complaining that he is not a foreign policy president; and I do not presume that being or not being a “foreign policy president” is a good or bad thing; my complaint is that he has treated foreign policy poorly even considering his domestic problems. I don’t expect him to be hosting handshake parties or be jetting about to mediate conflicts; but I would expect him to have arranged something more than celebrity appointments with minimal powers on their own to do what is needed where they are competent. I really see no excuse in the economy or anywhere except for his fear of losing office for his appointment of Hillary Clinton as SoS. The problems I see with that appointment and her performance and too many to get into, but they come down to an issue of character beyond that foreign policy is not a top priority; I could excuse someone closer to him ideationally and personally (and as or more qualified; there were such candidates, too) who met with him as infrequently and who was as independent. But their political differences and her ambitions make it potentially dangerous. He could have avoided that with another, smarter, more aggressive and more involved appointment in the upper executive to deal with foreign issues around Clinton (I like very much what VP Biden does, though they often send him on needless errands). This is related to the culture of our political parties (and our voters) today.

      Let me again re-iterate: this post does not evaluate President Obama by the Palestinian score card. I hope you have noticed that this blog is not really concerned with that issue at all because it is (I think) a distraction from more serious problems in the region and the world. This is about a political culture and world-view in the United States that is unhealthy and would be unhealthy even if the economy were not so bad. The point that the economy deserves the highest priority is taken and respected; but I don’t think it excuses the way he has organized and treated foreign affairs (it explains it and helps us understand it). His domestic politics are as bad, too, but I try to avoid domestic issues here.

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