Obama’s strategic drift

Rosa Brooks offers President Obama some tips on what to do if he gets re-elected:

1. Get a Strategy. No, really. We don’t currently seem to have one, grand or otherwise. We’ve got “the long war” — but we don’t seem to have a long game. Instead of a strategy, we have aspirations (“We want a stable Middle East”) and we have laundry lists (check out the 2010 National Security Strategy). But as I have written in a previous column, there’s no clear sense of what animates our foreign policy. And without a clear strategic vision of the world, there’s no way to evaluate the success or failure of different initiatives, and no way to distinguish the important from the marginal.

What does President Obama see as the one or two gravest threats to the United States? What are our one or two biggest opportunities? Is terrorism an existential threat to the United States, or a marginal threat, overshadowed by the long-term dangers posed by climate change, pandemics, and a highly manipulable global financial system? Should we focus on increasing ties in Asia, or focus on our neighbors in Central and South America? Is the United States trying to maintain global preeminence, even if it comes at the expense of other states — or are we trying to foster a global order in which the United States is but one of many strong countries, all constrained by a robust international network of laws and institutions?

If President Obama lacks a clear strategic foreign policy vision, it’s partly because the strategic planning shops within the White House’s National Security Staff (NSS) and the State Department have been marginalized and disempowered. Within the NSS, the Strategic Planning Directorate has been reduced to a speech-writing shop, without the clout to bring senior officials to the table for longer-term strategy discussions. At the State Department, the Policy Planning office — once run by such legendary figures as George Kennan and Paul Nitze — was handed off, after Anne-Marie Slaughter’s departure, to a young lawyer whose credentials include ample brains and a stint as a Clinton campaign aide, but no prior foreign policy experience.

If President Obama ekes out a victory on November 6, he should take a strategic pause. He should ensure that influential and credible people are appointed to lead the various strategic planning shops, and insist that his senior officials participate in a process to develop a clear, concise and articulable strategy, one that can guide future U.S. foreign policy and national security decisions.

All of this might be sound advice in the circumstances, but don’t Americans who are being asked to give Obama a second term deserve to already have a clear view of his strategic vision? The implicit promise here is: give me another four years and then I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. That’s not how democracy is supposed to work.

Obama’s lack of strategy is in fact the signature of his presidency — an approach which is far more reactive than directive. Early on he excused his lack of interest in prosecuting anyone for the crimes of the previous administration by claiming that he wanted to look forward, not back, but as a reactive president he is perpetually looking back.

As for why he has not been supplied with the kind of strategic thinking that could have given his first term more direction, this seems to stem from the way he responded differently to finding himself in similar circumstances as George W. Bush.

Both men entered office aware that they needed to come up with a way of handling their individual lack of experience. Bush opted to compensate by surrounding himself with strong-willed political veterans (and thereby created the space for a neoconservative takeover). Obama’s choices on the other hand seem to have been swayed by his own vanity. Rather than risk being outshone by anyone, he has generally opted to surround himself with sycophantic mediocrity.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email