Making foreign policy in a democracy is not easy. On top of the customary challenges of devising
and implementing strategy in a complex international system, there are the
additional factors of public opinion and the electoral cycle. These burdens vexed George Kennan so much
that he came to disdain American democracy and despair of his country even
being able to conduct an effective grand strategy. Similar frustrations sometimes beset
contemporary commentators such as Tom Friedman, who express envy
for China's autocracy and its apparent ease of decision-making.
But as Kennan failed to appreciate, democracy as a system
also brings advantages to the making of foreign policy. These include the legitimacy of public
opinion, the collective wisdom that can emanate from the body politic, the moral
authority of democratic consent, the collective resources offered by
participatory government, and the occasional brake on folly that public
accountability can impose.
It is in this context that President Obama's recent open-mic
might be considered. When President
Obama's own "oops" moment happened during his meeting with Russian President
Medvedev in Seoul, the White House no doubt hoped that it would be nothing more
than a one-day news story. Now that a
couple of weeks have passed since Obama notoriously told the Russian leadership
that he would have more "flexibility" once he was less accountable to the
American electorate, the issue doesn't seem to be going away. Past hot-mic slips have been evanescent stories
at best, but this one is likely to enter the annals of Obama administration
foreign policy infelicities in the same file as "leading from behind," returning
the Churchill bust to the UK, and showing the Dalai Lama the back
door. The question is why?
In part this is because the White House itself is signaling
to make foreign policy a central part of its re-election campaign, which thus
brings greater scrutiny on President Obama's foreign policy intentions during a
second term. As a campaign tactic this focus
is unsurprising, given the Obama administration's weak domestic and economic
policy record. (The White House seems to
realize this as well, hence the Obama re-election campaign's sheepishness about
featuring past priority initiatives such as Obamacare or the failed stimulus
package). But there are several other
reasons why the "flexibility" remark won't soon be forgotten:
one of Obama's first strategic mistakes.
His 2009 decision to back away from commitments to American allies
Poland and the Czech Republic while capitulating to Russian demands on ballistic missile defense secured very little in return from Moscow, especially
in Russian willingness to pressure Iran on its nuclear program.
another past miscalculation. In
asking Medvedev to pass the "flexibility" message on to President-"elect"
Putin, Obama inadvertently highlighted the administration's early failed
efforts to boost Medvedev as the Russian leader while downplaying Putin's
ongoing repression and consolidation of power.
more questions. What other types of
comments or commitments has President Obama made to foreign leaders that hot
microphones didn't pick up? One hopes
that the "flexibility" plea is an aberration, and that this president does not
see the American people as an obstacle to his foreign policy goals. The Republican presidential nominee will
likely be asking this question often for the next several months. [Unsurprising disclosure: I am a supporter of
Gov. Romney's presidential campaign].
unfavorably with Obama's predecessor.
For all of the criticism directed at President George W. Bush during his
time in office, foreign leaders and the American people always knew where he
stood and did not worry that his public talk conflicted with his private messages. This contrast only further complicates the
Obama administration's efforts to blame Bush for their challenges while simultaneously benefiting from his policies. Notwithstanding the cheap
shots at Bush by some recent Obama administration officials, the White
House continues to follow many Bush national security policies. The White
House's continuation of the Bush administration counterterrorism framework and
Asia-Pacific strategic alignments has been detailed at length elsewhere. Now the current benefits of bolstered
intelligence collection on Iran that Bush launched
can be added to the ledger.
an impression of disregard for many of the American people. Perhaps most irksome about the "flexibility" comment
was its implication that President Obama sees the American public as a
hindrance. But this is not the first
time that he has been caught by a hot microphone disparaging his fellow
citizens. Recall, for example, his 2008 comments
that some Americans "they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion."
exacerbates concern among American allies and partners about the Obama administration's reliability. Ironically,
for all of this White House's campaign rhetoric about improving America's image
and "repairing" relations with our allies, the reality is that under Obama our
relations with most of our allies and partners on virtually every continent have
actually worsened -- yes, worsened -- since the end of the Bush administration. The recent summit
with Canada and Mexico barely covered over Canada's acute frustration with
Obama for canceling the northern half of Keystone XL and apparently blocking
their Trans-Pacific Partnership participation, or Mexico's anger over the
thousands of guns flooding their country from the botched "Fast and Furious"
operation. In Europe, the neglect felt
by Britain and France is now compounded by their worries
that the administration will look for an election-year off-ramp from stopping
Iran's nuclear program, not to mention doubts about the White House's
commitment to ending Assad's rule in Syria.
Japan and Australia find the administration's abrupt changes of course in
their region disconcerting, and Taiwan questions the White House's commitment
to its security. India wonders whether
the administration will leave its region even more unstable by focusing on
leaving rather than winning in Afghanistan, and also wonders whether President
Obama genuinely sees it as a strategic partner.
Iraq and Afghanistan represent two cases where the Obama administration
has presided over the deterioration in the complex yet functional bilateral
relationships it inherited in January 2009.
Obama's fraught relationship with Israel speaks for itself. And of course, Central and Eastern Europeans
worry that Obama's appeal to the Russians for "flexibility" will come at the
expense of America's commitment to their security.