Entering the last two years of the Obama administration, it is not very difficult to say that foreign policy has not been its strongest point.
The recent opening between Cuba and the U.S. distracted the attention of U.S. foreign policy pundits for a little while from the challenges that U.S. foreign policy is facing in the Middle East. Rightfully so, as it was a historic move and most probably something that can become U.S. President Barack Obama’s legacy in foreign policy if it can be followed up with different political, economic and social initiatives. However, despite this new major policy opening, not many foreign policy pundits in Washington are optimistic about the new year and the last two years of the Obama administration. According to them, the problems are not only about indecision on Asia, inaction in the Middle East and indifference to the increasing questions in the world regarding the reputation and leadership of the U.S. as a superpower. What makes them skeptic of the administration’s foreign policy are related to the persistent problems in the decision making process in U.S. foreign policy and lack of a coherent strategy about the challenges that the U.S. and international security may face in the coming years. Both observers of U.S. foreign policy and former members of the Obama administration in numerous different instances emphasized and underlined these problems, but so far not much changed in these two realms. Instead, the reflections of these problems to the world started to be damaging both to the reputation of the U.S. and its relations with its allies. In the world, on the one hand, high level U.S. officials, and even cabinet members, started to be perceived as irrelevant because of the decision making process at the White House and, on the other hand, indecisiveness and what some label as a strategy-less nature of foreign policy, began to generate increasing ambivalence among U.S. allies.
Entering the last two years of the Obama administration, it is not very difficult to say that foreign policy has not been its strongest point. Accounts of the administration demonstrate that, in part, what makes foreign policy a less successful dimension of the Obama administration has to do with the decision making process in the White House. There were already some accounts of this problem by former members of Obama’s foreign policy team, such as Vali Nasr, who in his book, “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat,” accused White House staff of interfering in the operations of the State Department without really knowing the field or having specific experience in the realm. Nasr’s emphasis on the micromanagement of foreign and security policy was later reiterated by some other members of the administration such as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in his memoir, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War.” More recently, David Rothkopf, in his book, “National Insecurity: American Foreign Policy in an Age of Fear,” provided similar arguments about the problems in the decision making process. For him, in addition to micromanagement, there were several problems including the size and ambition of the National Security Council, which tries to play the role of the State Department and Department of Defense at the same time and eliminates interagency processes. However, it is not only the former members of the administration and the ardent observers of U.S. policy who realize this problem. The troubles and confusion in the decision making process are also creating huge problems for U.S. diplomacy abroad. The accounts and anecdotes in these books and numerous other articles that tell the stories of exclusion of key cabinet members from very significant decision making processes and the increasing effectiveness of the political operatives and advisors are generating a strong perception that the negotiations and meetings with high level U.S. diplomats and even cabinet members may be irrelevant because, at the end of the day, a very small number of people at the White House can make these decisions without deliberating with these officials. Thus the expectations of meetings with U.S. foreign and security diplomacy are going down in the world. Especially in the critical areas where Obama demonstrated his intention to take a specific stand and to micromanage, such as the inaction in Syria, the diplomatic endeavors of senior diplomats or cabinet members are beginning to be considered a waste of time by U.S. allies.
A second but related problem has to do with the inability to bring together a coherent strategy to deal with particular problems in the world. Again, from different accounts it is easy to see a significant degree of indecisiveness and uncertainty about foreign and security policies during the years of the Obama presidency. Many experts and former members of the administration believe that there should be a coherent but flexible strategy and it needs to be more sophisticated than “don’t do stupid shit” or “no boots on the ground.” Because of that, Obama’s statements and policy speeches are increasingly seen as rhetorical actions that will not be followed up by actions. After several instances in Syria, such as the “red line” statement and the use of chemical weapons, many have indicated that words as strong as “red line” need to have some planning and strategy behind them. This was also the case during the recent operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Obama’s statement that there was no strategy for fighting against ISIS was followed up with a strategy about ISIS that he announced. But soon afterward it was leaked that there is a predominant view that the strategy was not working and there may be some revisions to it. Experts both at home and abroad were trying to understand what the real strategy was, what the exit strategy is and what is being revised. Due to the increasing number of unknowns nowadays, there is an additional question while debating the administration’s strategy on certain foreign policy issues if there is any strategy at all. It is also increasingly perceived that instead of building a strategy and conveying the final decision to the public, the administration is announcing the intention and then starts thinking about its feasibility and effectiveness.
Among foreign policy experts it is more frequently said that the Obama administration is more willing to give messages than strategize and plan an action and, more importantly, a clique of advisors instead of an interagency process mostly formulates these messages. This perception of the strategy-less U.S., with much criticized decision making mechanism, can be one of the biggest challenges for the last two years of the Obama administration.
This article was originally published in the Daily Sabah on January 4, 2015.