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February 12, 2012

A Strategy of Halfway Measures

by Mike M

The debate that will rage about the Obama foreign policy, for an inevitable second term (barring some unforeseen calamity or surprising GOP entrant into the race) and into history, will be between those who see it as a sensible steering between unnecessary extremes, and those who view it was a series of actual choices avoided in favor of halfway measures that leave genuine risks for later attention.  In other words:  A subset of the debate about the administration as a whole.

One has to admit that this is a hard judgment to make in the middle of events.  But two things seem evident:  There are remarkably few strategic decisions, choices, or judgments that one could call bold, innovative, creative, or even decisive; and yet, while steering a pragmatic course between radical options, the administration still wants to claim the ability to stake out rhetorical and strategic ground at pretty far ends of the spectrum.  (Eg:  In Afghanistan, don’t go all in or pull out; but broadcast rhetoric steeped in war-on-terror absolutism; on defense policy, maintain strategies of global presence of force projection but make a hundred “pragmatic” procurement and budget decisions that don’t leave you in a position to execute them.)  And so one wonders:  As much as the clever navigation among the buoys of world events seems to reflect “wise and sober management” (and thus earn major Political Points from armies of Washington pundits all around the spectrum), will halfway measures combined with bold rhetoric and strategies that leave us anchored in old ways of thinking get us where we need to go?

Two extremely thoughtful recent pieces throw light on these issues.  One is James Fallows’s new portrait of the Obama leadership style in The Atlantic.  One is hesitant to take issue with Fallows, one of our most insightful commentators—a man whose classic essay “The Fifty-First State?” came as close as anything else to an accurate warning of our fate after thrusting the long arm of American ambition into Iraq.  And yet I find his Obama profile too … tame, perhaps, too damned sensible, too willing to ground itself in some imagined inability of any president to do very well.  A more charitable assessment, Fallows implies, starts from a humble assumption about their powers and looks at what they don’t screw up, and what they do accomplish.

His section on foreign policy—the list, as he puts it, of “what has gone right, or not gone as badly wrong as it could have” during the administration—is instructive.  It’s a list that reflects, in a sense, the victory of halfway measures.  As it appears in the essay, the list includes:

• containing what could have been an open-ended commitment in Iraq;

• walking a tightrope in Afghanistan:  avoiding criticism from the military for doing too little while also preparing a path for withdrawal;

• managing the troubled relationship with Pakistan—including in the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden raid;

• encouraging the Arab Spring events in general, without getting mired in the details of any of them;

• supporting the Europeans during their debt crisis, while keeping the United States somewhat insulated from it; and

• putting U.S. relations with China on a better footing than in many years, a task that has to be among the very most important for any president of the early 21st century.

Look at the phrasing:  This, without that; or, This, but that.  It’s as if every national security issue is a teeter-totter, and the job of a president, or an administration, is to stand atop it and lean back and forth, keeping the ends from hitting the ground.  This sort of approach works well, until you look up from your tottering and realize everyone else has left the playground because the world has moved on, and you were too busy leaning this way and that to make any real judgments about it.

And then, too, some of the things on this list appear with a verb that demands a debate.  “Managing the troubled relationship with Pakistan”?  I’d say more like managing it right into some very perilous waters.  It was abundantly clear in 2008 that the existing approach to Pakistan—“we’re gonna make them see our perspective”—would not work.  But that remained the basic approach, as much as it was dressed up with civilian aid programs and language about strategic partnership.

And China:  Fallows is convinced that Beijing was getting real big for its britches circa 2009, and the administration’s tough line, “pivot” to Asia, and symbols of commitment, such as the new Marine base at Darwin Australia, have helped put things right.  All of this would be more persuasive if China were an imminent military threat to anybody, which it is not.  Reasserting US Asian commitments is just fine, and makes perfect sense.  China is a rising power, and the region is concerned, and we do have a role to play.  But doing so to a degree that makes China—already marinating in a rising-power pride, nationalism and a deeply-held sense of inferiority and grievance—believe we are trying to contain and undermine its power would be utterly counterproductive.  The betting here is that we have now stepped willfully across that admittedly ambiguous line.

The second piece worth a close read is an important new essay from Thomas P. M. Barnet, in World Politics Review.  Barnet reminds us that a critical goal of US post-war strategy has been “to maintain a high and hugely expensive entry barrier to the ‘market’ that is great-power war”—partly through advanced military power, partly via institutions.  And I would add, in an increasingly multipolar world, this job gets really tricky, because things get more fluid, US power gets less reliable, etc; so if there was any time not to screw around with the entry barrier to adventurism, this is it.

And Barnet very cagily and rightly asks:  What the hell are we doing?  US foreign policy for some years, and now continuing under the Obama administration, reflects “a national security establishment intent on pressing the boundaries of this heretofore rather sacrosanct responsibility.”  We claim the right to launch drone attacks anywhere, against anyone.  We say we’ll launch SOF raids at our discretion.  We decide that a ruler must go, and poof, away he goes, in a cloud of “coalition of the willing” smoke.  But Barnet also includes our renewed determination to play Globocop in East Asia in interventionist ways.  Among the provocations of US policy, he includes:

the aggressive ramping up of targeted assassinations by drones and special forces, along with the just-announced strategic “pivot” to East Asia—a region of stunning strategic stability despite the simultaneous rise of multiple great powers—raises some questions about where Obama is going with all this.  If any other great power killed its enemies around the world at will, it would be called a “state-sponsor of terrorism” of the most destabilizing sort.  Imagine how unrestrained our domestic political dialogue would be, for instance, if China carried out such an assassination campaign, in addition to basing troops permanently all over the world, while announcing that its new strategic focus involved increasing its ability to wage high-end sustained warfare in the Western Hemisphere.

Excellent questions.  In a way he might just be dressing the old security dilemma issue up in new clothes; but it points, again, to the intense constraints on what was meant to be a “transformational” administration, and the gaps between rhetoric, strategy, and policy.  We can talk all we like about global institutions and norms, but in the breach we claim the right to do whatever the hell we want.  And the whole process will generate the usual calm assent from the conventional wisdom crowd, until—as Barnet suggests—somebody else takes up the practices we’re now espousing.

It seems to me that a critical question that gets insufficient attention in assessments of presidential leadership in foreign policy is context.  A manage-and-wait style may be appropriate for some times, but not others.  Same thing with a “go for broke” approach.  In this regard there’s a good argument in the national security context—I won’t belabor it now, but you know the outlines—that we’re well into a process of dramatic change that demands different thinking, strategies, organization, equipping and so forth.  In other words, that the Obama administration arrived at a moment that called for a transformational brand of leadership, not cautious steerage.  Incrementalism would leave us, in a decade, with approaches mismatched to a system shifting rapidly under our feet; or worse, by running in place on outmoded approaches, it could get us into unnecessary trouble.

But wait:  I thought I’d heard that somewhere before—an inspiring candidate who ran for president some years ago.  A man who said that the old politics was broken, and that we had to stop thinking in terms of just pushing problems off—we had to solve them.  “What’s stopped us from meeting these challenges,” he said in the short speech announcing his candidacy, “is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans.  What’s stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics … our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems.”

“That’s why I’m in this race,” the candidate said.  “Not just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a nation.”

When the thoughtful, calm, measured Obama administration has run its course, we could use a bold, transformational leader like that.

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