Why the Obama administration's pragmatism is a failing strategy

That David Brooks is practically a surrogate for the Obama presidential campaign probably shouldn't be surprising, given that the supposedly conservative columnist for the New York Times endorsed Obama in the 2008 election. Leaving aside his infelicitous use of terms like "multi-problemarity," Brooks' current endorsement of the administration's foreign policy -- as an ingenious fox compared to the blundering hedgehog of its predecessor -- averts its eyes from the continuity of policies. One might argue the same policies have been carried out with better management and cost-effectiveness than during the Bush administration, except that the Obama administration has proved itself no more adept -- think the "civilian surge" in Afghanistan. Nor are they any more inclined than was the Bush administration to alter ideological positions on the role of the United Nations or the virtue of nuclear reductions or the need to "protect" American jobs or the centrality of Russia or the need to end the war in Iraq, even when evidence is plentiful their choices have negative consequences.

Brooks makes a general virtue of the president's failures because they illustrate his resilience in adopting new policies. But a policy isn't necessarily wrong because it is failing. It could be failing because the administration isn't providing the necessary resources, hasn't brought its different policy tools into supportive alignment, is being tested by adversaries to determine our commitment to see it through, is arrogantly assuming regional actors don't understand their own interests and demanding they adopt our approach, takes near-term actions that undercut their long-term goals, or alienates actors that have the potential to ruin our approach. (All of these apply to Obama administration Afghanistan policy, incidentally.)

Brooks' encomia is of a piece with praise of the Obama national security team in James Mann's "The Obamians," and Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael O'Hanlon's "Bending History." A common theme in all these accounts is applauding the Obama team's "new realists" for their pragmatism. A less flattering way to say this is that the Obama administration adopted the very policies they campaigned against, and jettisoned policies they support when the achieving of them proved difficult. As one comedian put it, President Obama would really be in trouble if he were running for president against the guy who got elected in 2008.

President Obama has made a lot of political hay over not being President Bush, but has succeeded only in a Nixon-to-China kind of way: He can get away with policies that liberals opposed when practiced by conservatives. Where the president has bungled, it has been by indulging new directions so admired by chroniclers of the administration. Here's the tally of their signature initiatives:

  • writing off Iraq;
  • extending a hand to the governments of Iran and Syria;
  • clinging to a strategy for Afghanistan that isn't executable because of their inability to align diplomatic, temporal and economic means to capitalize on our military actions; 
  • giving authoritarian governments the keys to our policy by refusing to consider U.S. action outside the framework of the U.N.;
  • allowing trade negotiations to fall dormant;
  • not understanding that Israeli confidence will need to be rebuilt for the middle east peace process to advance -- the Fayad government has done great work improving security, President Abbas has done catastrophically little to produce the political constellation for effective governance and the compromises necessary for peace;
  • unwillingness to align us with the advance of freedom in the Middle East (not just once, but seriatum as the Arab Spring revolutions have unfolded), thereby compromising both our values and our potential influence with political movements newly participating in government; 
  • alternatively embracing then humiliating Pakistan because of tactical choices about Afghanistan rather than assisting the democratic transition in Pakistan that is so central to our longer-term interests;
  • loudly announcing a "pivot to Asia" that amounts to the shifting of 10 percent of our maritime effort across a decade;
  • irritating allies by "leading from behind" but claiming the credit where their hard work succeeds.

A seminal question for the 2012 campaign will be whether President Obama can sustain the support of liberals while championing conservative national security policies. The Obama campaign certainly believes national security is a winning issue, but early evidence should not be reassuring to the president's supporters. The campaign's swaggering bravado and politicization of national security issues seems to alienate independent voters, and it may even serve to dampen turnout among liberals less enraptured with the president's new enthusiasm for targeted killings and disrespect for the sovereignty of other countries.

It also leaves an awful lot of room for Romney to lay claim to foreign policy themes with wide public resonance, such as the ideas that the most important and enduring international relationships are built on common values; that you build coalitions with countries that share your interests rather than allowing countries that don't to determine your choices; that where governments are repressive they lose the legitimacy to govern; that trade agreements advance our own economy and force adversaries to play by the rules; that new democracies deserve our help in building the institutions and practices of governance; that sound management of our foreign affairs requires the ability to bring political, economic, and military means together cost-effectively; that American military power is essential to maintaining a global order that is in our interests.

This will not be a campaign about foreign policy, given the president's mismanagement of the economy. But conservatives should not allow the president's advocates to pretend their "new pragmatism" means there are no differences between liberals and conservatives on foreign policy, or shy away from advocating the principles that appeal to American voters.


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Shadow Government

How will history judge Obama on Syria?

If words were weapons, the Obama administration would have already brought down the Assad regime and probably started a conflict with Russia and China. Last week, Jay Carney responded to Russia and China's veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution imposing additional sanctions on Syria by saying that the two countries were on "the wrong side of history," describing the vetoes as "very regrettable," "deplorable," and "highly unfortunate." UN Ambassador Susan Rice added "reprehensible and immoral" to the mix in an appearance on CNN, before saying: "The reality is that Russia and China are isolated outliers, [have] put all their chips on a sinking Assad vessel, and [are] making a big miscalculation over the long term, in terms of their interest and in terms of how history will judge them. History will judge them as having stood by a brutal dictator at the expense of his own people, and at the expense of the will of the international community and countries in the region."

But unfortunately, the tyrants of the world do not fear words, at least coming from this president. So how will history judge the Obama administration's handling of the Syrian crisis even if Assad falls in the coming weeks or months? Despite the self-righteous indignation of administration officials, Syria still burns. Secretary of Defense Panetta noted on Wednesday that the situation was "rapidly spinning out of control" and State Department officials have described a growing humanitarian crisis as thousands of refugees flee to Syria's neighbors to escape the violence.

This all comes as elements of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile are reportedly on the move, raising the real possibility that the regime might use such weapons against civilians in embattled areas in a last ditch, desperate attempt to survive or that these deadly weapons of mass destruction will fall into the hands of al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or other terrorist groups.

Even if chemical weapons are not used and the Assad regime collapses quickly, there is a real concern that violence between elements of the opposition or various sectarian groups could break out as state institutions collapse or fade away

Amidst all of this uncertainty, one thing is clear. The Obama administration is completely unprepared and possibly unwilling to shape Syria's future. What is also clear is that in recent months and even this week, the United States has sent a horrible message to tyrants elsewhere about the (non-existent) costs of mass killings of innocents.

On July 16th, Secretary of State Clinton told Margaret Brennan of CBS News that the key to resolving the conflict was all about the "will that we're trying to engender between both the government and the opposition to ease the violence and work toward a transition that leads to a democratic future." That followed this exchange:

BRENNAN: "How is the U.S. supplying the rebels at this point?"

SEC. CLINTON: "With non-lethal assistance. Which is what we said we would."

BRENNAN: "What would make you change the type of support?"

SEC. CLINTON: "At this point, nothing. We are focused on doing what we think is appropriate for us to do. We don't want to further militarize the conflict. We don't want to support either directly or indirectly the arming of people who could perhaps not use those weapons in a way
we would prefer."

Remember, this is more than 17,000 deaths into the crisis and even as chemical weapons were being pulled out of storage. The equivalence between the regime and the opposition is absolutely stunning, as is the statement that "nothing" would cause the administration to think about more aggressive actions. So much for a "responsibility to protect" or for the much publicized Obama administration's track record of faster, more nimble, less messy interventions than its predecessors.

Despite the ham-handed way in which the Libya intervention was explained to the American people and to Congress, it did save thousands of lives and has given Libyans an opportunity to make something of their country. But in Syria, there is a fifteen month record of "leading from behind" and empty rhetoric, but no real willingness to save Syrian lives or to protect and advance American interests. Even as U.S. allies in the region jumped in to fill the void, pursuing their own, more narrow interests, we stood largely on the sidelines, giving us little leverage now with Syria's future leaders.

So, even before the fall of Assad, which now in and of itself, may bring further chaos and bloodshed absent significant outside intervention, the Obama record is clear. Secretary Clinton and her colleagues will now join the pantheon of American officials who have stood idly by while thousands died. Move over James Baker -- although at least Baker was honest with his view that America had no reason to get involved in Bosnia, just as the Russians and Chinese are honest about their interests in propping up Assad.

So what would help to resuscitate this Obama record littered by the bodies of innocent Syrian men, women and children and the very real repercussions of an imploding Syrian state? At this point, short of a miraculous change in behavior, nothing.