Shadow Government

What can we blame on Rio?

By Peter Feaver

Does the Olympic decision tell us much about Obama foreign policy?

I think Barack Obama's critics will face an irresistible temptation to Blame it On Rio from here on out and that would be unfair. The Olympic setback is hardly the defining moment of President Obama's foreign policy. But it is a window through which we can see some things a bit more clearly now than perhaps we saw before. With apologies to Fred Barnes, who beat me to the punch on some of these, here would be my quick hit list:

  1. The decision shows the limits of soft power and those limits are greater than even soft power skeptics realized. The failure of Obama to get substantial soft-power payoff on such crucial issues as NATO reinforcements in Afghanistan, Gitmo detainees, or Saudi help on the Israel-Palestinian Authority peace process is a setback for the most irrationally exuberant soft power enthusiasts, perhaps. But those are actually "least likely" cases for the soft-power thesis. They involve very serious matters of high politics on which there are deep and understandable conflicts of interest. The selection of the Olympic site, on the other hand, is a "most likely" case for soft power influence: low politics, no core conflict of interest (except for the handful of countries competing for host city status), and a secret-ballot protection that would allow delegates to vote their hearts and not their heads. Moreover, President Obama expended more soft-power effort on this issue than any previous president ever did. To not only lose but lose in a much-worse-than-expected fashion is a remarkable result that, quite frankly, should surprise even soft power skeptics. There is a great academic paper in this decision and I look forward to reading it.
  2. The decision shows the extraordinary influence of the Chicago three -- Rahm Emmanuel, David Axelrod, and Valerie Jarrett -- on matters that cross over into foreign policy. A favorite DC parlor game is trying to figure out how real decisionmaking on foreign and national security policy is done in the Obama administration. There have been some fairly fanciful depictions (I can't find the link but fellow FP blogger Daniel Drezner takes apart one of the most egregious examples here) and few well-sourced players of this parlor game buy those depictions. The Olympics gambit shows, it would appear, that the Big Three close-knit cluster of advisors has extraordinary influence in ways somewhat less favorable to the Obama team. As the inevitable tic-tocs get written, it will be interesting to see whether the team loses a bit of its close-knittedness and is replaced by more of the finger-pointing on which beltway journalism thrives.
  3. The optics of the trip, which included a quick meeting with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, are very unfortunate for Obama-era civil-military relations: 25 hours for a failed Olympic bid vs. 25 minutes for your battlefield commander in the good and necessary war in Afghanistan. Such optics are somewhat unfair but they inevitably frame the way the "deeper meaning" of dramatic episodes get interpreted (case in point: what comes to your mind when you hear the words "My Pet Goat"?). Because President Obama already has a slow-motion civil-military crisis-in-the-making due to the way his team is handling the Afghanistan strategy review, he could ill afford the images that emerged.
  4. Setbacks (or gaffes) that reinforce an emerging critical frame are more consequential than ones that cut against that frame and, unfortunately for President Obama, this episode fits the former not the latter. Consider the following hypothetical: Which would have been more damaging for President Bush, wasting a primetime address with a long, boring, detail-laden Dukakis/Gore/Kerry-like speech that fell flat with the audience or mangling some talking point about a world leader? The mangled talking point, of course, because that would serve to confirm the caricature whereas the former would reinforce an image no critic really had. Reinforcing setbacks become punchlines; contradicting setbacks do not. Unfortunately for President Obama, the emerging caricature of him is that he is a self-regarding, all-international-politics-is-personal-politics celebrity who doesn't "get" the real world. I don't think that is an entirely fair caricature of him (are any caricatures ever fair?), but the Copenhagen Caper reinforces that frame.

Bottom line: this was not a good moment for President Obama's foreign policy. Let's not exaggerate its importance but let's also not miss what it does tell us about important matters.

OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images

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